Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why US Feels the Heat to Keep Its Shuttles Flying

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why US Feels the Heat to Keep Its Shuttles Flying

Article excerpt

When the space shuttle Discovery docks with the International Space Station Thursday, some of the loudest cheers will be overseas.

That's because the shuttle is the only vehicle able to deliver key components of the station over the next four years. Its success will determine whether the station becomes a fully functional international laboratory - or a useless, partially built curiosity circling Earth. It may also determine whether the United States remains a player in future international efforts in manned spaceflight.

Europe, Russia, and Japan are watching closely to see if NASA can deliver on its promises - and NASA seems to be feeling the pressure.

America's partners "understand the loss of Columbia and are sympathetic," says Roger Launius, who chairs the space history department at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington. "But they are also saying: It's time to get back to business."

In the end, he adds, a fundamental reason other countries signed up to take part in the space-station project was to hone their own aerospace skills.

"In the 20 years since we've been trying to build the space station, those countries have made enormous progress in advancing their aerospace technology. They may not need us in the future."

Until recently, it would have been inconceivable to exclude the United States from an international space effort. It spends more than four times as much on space exploration as the European Space Agency does and nearly 20 times as much as Russia does. The shuttle remains an engineering marvel that no other country has matched. Some experts doubt a project beyond Earth's orbit could proceed without the US.

"You have to look at the amount of money that's been allocated [by others]; that's when you take this [threat] seriously," says George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington. So far, the money isn't there, he says.

But the shuttle has proved so complex and costly to operate that NASA is scrapping it in favor of its earlier capsule-atop-big- rocket approach. That's the approach that the Europeans and Russians have continued to refine over the last two decades. For three years while NASA struggled to return to flight after the Columbia disaster, Russian rockets shuttled provisions and crews to the station.

Other nations have been catching up, too. For example, the European Space Agency outlined a vision for astronauts reaching the moon a year before President Bush issued his vision. China has launched humans into space and brought them back safely.

The Europeans and Japanese have supplied modules for the station that allow astronauts to work in space. Thursday's transfer of German astronaut Thomas Reiter to the station will mark the first time it will host a crew that includes three of the project's four major partners. …

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