Hard questions need to be asked to avoid another shuttle tragedy

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

The space shuttle program faded from national consciousness as the 1986 Challenger disaster faded from memory. The shuttles became less explorers and more workhorses, hauling construction materials to the International Space Station.

Saturday the Challenger leaped to memory again, but in a world that could no longer assume that the trails of smoking debris in the sky were merely the result of a tragic accident. ...

By Sunday, with terrorism the most distant of possible explanations, the obvious decisions had been made; President Bush formed a commission to investigate the accident and NASA grounded the shuttle fleet.

Now come the hard calls -- small, urgent ones at first, but necessarily leading over time to a reexamination of the shuttle program and the International Space Station. Asking those questions demonstrates no lack of faith in the space program. Rather, it shows that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can apply the scientific method to itself and learn from this latest tragedy.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe should start by scrapping Discovery, the oldest of the three remaining shuttles. It has seen 29 missions and numerous technical problems. To bring the three astronauts now in the International Space Station back to Earth, he may have to use the much smaller Russian Soyuz capsules.

Bush should ensure that the Columbia commission is as independent from NASA as was the group that investigated Challenger. ...

NASA's annual budget today is about half what it was 35 years ago, in constant dollars. Hindsight will always generate suspicion that the cost of inspection, either directly or in lost time, was at issue. The agency's motto of recent years, ''Cheaper, Faster, Better,'' worked satisfactorily for unmanned missions that could be written off when they went astray. Keeping humans aloft, a matter of pride and prowess for the United States, requires different thinking. ...

Bush, his eyes glistening and his voice cracking with emotion, said only hours after the accident, ''Our journey in space will go on.'' If the Columbia commission and NASA ask the right questions, the answers, however painful, will focus and strengthen America's commitment to the still endless possibilities of exploration and discovery.

-- Los Angeles Times

Feb. 3

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