A United State's space crisis

After the Columbia shuttle tragedy it is essential that NASA get the Discovery trip right. It is also important for the future of the space programme in the United States writes Emma Browne


The continual failures of NASA to deliver on the launch of Discovery and the criticism they received in the post Columbia investigations has raised doubt about the ability of the United States to deliver a safe and successful space programme. As well, last month a report by two top space experts said President Bush's grand space plans are over-ambitious, under-budgeted and unrealistic.

The flight of the Discovery was originally planned for late 2004, and then postponed to March, then May, then July. The launch had to be scrapped on Wednesday 13 July after they noticed a defective sensor on the fuel tank. It was reading a low fuel level, even though there should have been 530,000 gallons of fuel in the form of liquid hydrogen. Faulty sensors could cause the engine to cut out too early or too late so it was a serious problem. Originally a problem with the fuel sensor emerged in April, which delayed the original lift-off date of 15 May. It was thought that the fuel sensor problem had been resolved last month.

The Discovery has been plagued by minor problems during its launch week. On Tuesday a window panel fell 65 ft from the crew cabin damaging several of the shuttle's heat resistant tiles. On Wednesday 13 July, the morning of lift-off, a heater unit designed to prevent ice forming on the external fuel tank failed and had to be replaced.

The Discovery will be the first shuttle launch to space since the Columbia disaster in February 2003, when seven astronauts died as the shuttle exploded on its descent to earth. It is vital to NASA's reputation and Bush's ambitious space plans that it is successful. It, like the remaining 28 missions due to take place before the ageing shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, is crucial to the completion of the International Space Station. The problem now is that they have a half built space station. Also the space station has not received supplies from its principle supplier – the US – for two and a half years.

An investigation into the Columbia disaster said that NASA's arrogant management culture was largely to blame. Every precaution is being taken with the Discovery launch to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated. NASA has met 12 out of the 15 recommendations for a safe return to space made by the Columbia panel. They say that the other three are impossible to follow within the limits of human knowledge. If NASA fails to get the shuttle ready by 31 July they will have to wait until 9 September before a window of opportunity will open.

A report last month by George Abbey, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston from 1995 to 2001, and Dr Neal Lane, the White House science adviser under President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, put serious doubt on Bush's space plans. His plan, announced in January 2004, calls for completing the International Space Station by 2010, ending the troubled space shuttle program and creating a new Crew Exploration Vehicle that will return to the Moon by 2020 "as the launching point for missions beyond," including to Mars.

Abbey said the current space plan called for about $5 billion in the next five years from the annual $16 billion NASA budget to be directed to the Moon-to-Mars plan. Yet, he said getting to the moon in the 1960's cost more than $125 billion when adjusted for inflation, so "$5 billion a year probably doesn't even get you to orbit."