Space agency comes down to earth


Following the safe return of Discovery, Nasa is fighting back against its critics, writes Leo Enright

The head of America's space shuttle programme was relaxing after the safe return of Discovery, and we were talking about his Irish roots. William Readdy is a former astronaut and now associate administrator of Nasa, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is intensely proud of his Irish parentage and talks easily about his heritage.

But as our conversation turned to the space shuttle, I began to realise that here, too, Bill Readdy was talking about something that had been handed down to him from the past.

"You have to remember that this is a vehicle that was designed back in the 1970s," he said. "Would we do things the same way now? I'm not so sure."

The designers of the space shuttle made decisions a generation ago that later spacefarers have had cause to regret.

Some choices were forced upon them by the demands of the military, others were the result of budget considerations, while still more were a product of the technology of the day. As a consequence, the space shuttle is a compromise.

"We probably won't see another multi-purpose spacecraft like this for a long time," said Readdy. "It was designed to carry people and cargo and to grapple objects in orbit in support of space station construction. That's an awful lot to ask of one vehicle."

But America is stuck for the present with its ageing space shuttle fleet, which is the country's only means of launching men and women into space and which is the only spacecraft capable of supporting construction of the International Space Station (ISS), the most complex civilian engineering project in history.

Since the loss of Columbia and its seven crew members, construction of the ISS has ceased and the orbiting complex is being maintained by a succession of skeleton crews, pairs of astronauts who have been launched aboard Russian rockets and whose time is almost completely devoted to basic housekeeping and repairs. Science - the ISS raison d'être - is now an afterthought until regular shuttle flights can ferry larger crews to the laboratory.

The return to flight of the space shuttle was intended to be a reassurance to America's partners in the space station project - Europe, Russia, Canada and Japan - that the US had resolved its difficulties and was ready to resume supporting the $100 billion joint endeavour.

The flight was also intended to reassure politicians much closer to home.

Some mid-ranking figures in the White House are thought to favour an accelerated programme to mothball the entire shuttle fleet, in much the same way that the Nixon administration abruptly terminated the Apollo moon landings after only half-a-dozen expeditions to the surface.

However, such a move would cause an international outcry, because major European and Japanese modules for the space station are in Florida hangars awaiting launch aboard space shuttle flights. But the mood at the White House may well be such that continued problems with the shuttle fleet would trigger another rethink.

Already, President Bush has said the shuttle must be retired by 2010, which by even the most optimistic estimates leaves barely enough time for the flights that would be needed to meet America's commitments to its partners.

It is against this background that falling chunks of foam and protruding gap-fillers began to take on almost apocalyptic proportions, as the space agency sought to reassure sceptical media that these problems could be fixed in the course of the new test-flight programme.

However, some voices (including the influential Chicago Tribune) have called this week for an immediate end to the shuttle programme. And Prof Robert Park, a spokesman for the American Physical Society and an outspoken critic of human space flight, said on Thursday: "It's clear they have to kill the shuttle, and pretty quick."

By the end of this week Nasa had begun to fight back volubly. Emboldened by the safe return of Discovery, senior managers began to map out a strategy that could see shuttle flights resuming as early as next spring.

Readdy even said that it was "possible" they could launch in November, citing the large number of engineers who are working on resolving the outstanding safety issues.

However, there are only three days that month when they could launch safely. The first lengthy opportunity to send a shuttle back to the International Space Station is in March. For the remainder of the shuttle programme's lifetime it will be a case of flying each mission as if it were the first.

Meanwhile, Nasa is to announce its plans for a shuttle replacement in just over a fortnight, on August 30th.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) is central to President Bush's vision of a programme to take men and women to the moon and then on to Mars, and he has allocated $753 million for continued CEV research in Nasa's 2006 budget.

The most striking feature of the new launch system is that it will place the crew compartment above the rocket, whereas the shuttle was strapped to the side and vulnerable to chunks falling from above.

The new head of Nasa, its administrator, is Michael Griffin, a plain-speaking engineer with a colourful turn of phrase. "As long as we put the crew and the valuable cargo up above wherever the tanks are, we don't care what they shed," he said. "They can have dandruff all day long." But America is not the only country making big decisions about the future.

Last month the Russian government approved a new space plan that includes development of a 14.5-tonne reusable space plane that would be used as a space station ferry craft. Anatoli Perminov, head of the Federal Space Agency, said other agencies, in particular the European Space Agency, were very interested in the Kliper project.

Russia's offer of participation in the project is likely to be discussed by European ministers at the next meeting of ESA's council in Berlin next December.

None of the new space vehicles being considered for development will be remotely as vulnerable to destruction as the space shuttle, which falls prey to all manner of hazard, some of them very exotic. This week's diversion of Discovery from its home port in Florida to the desert sands of California became necessary after chief astronaut Kent Rominger, in a spotter plane, reported seeing St Elmo's Fire glowing in the clouds above the Kennedy Space Centre.

St Elmo's Fire is an eerie electrical discharge that since time immemorial has held a special terror for mariners. If seen playing in the rigging of a ship, it was considered to be a very bad omen indeed.

The symbolism was not lost on some of the more ancient space mariners who gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre last Wednesday.

Leo Enright is a writer and broadcaster specialising in space