Putting the Future on Hold

The CHALLENGER explosion will set back the entire space program

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The first reaction was shock, horror, grief. The second, and almost reflexive, response by public officials to the Challenger catastrophe was determination to push on with an ambitious program of manned space flights. Thus President Reagan, speaking to the nation within hours of the tragedy, pledged, "We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space." Next day William Graham, NASA's acting administrator, asserted that "the space shuttle is our principal space transportation system; it will remain our principal space transportation system for the foreseeable future."

But when might the three remaining shuttles (Columbia, Discovery and Atlantis) go into orbit again? How many flights will--or indeed can--be scheduled, and what cargoes will take priority? Until the shuttle's fatal flaw can be identified and corrected, those questions will remain unanswered. But a few things seem clear. One is that even the temporary grounding of the shuttles, decreed by NASA immediately after the Challenger disaster, is a stunning setback to the entire U.S. space program. It will at best delay, and at worst force cancellation of, a wide variety of missions that were to have been carried out by shuttle-riding astronauts: launchings of scientific space probes and commercial and military satellites, as well as testing of equipment designed for use in President Reagan's Star Wars program. Says Marcia Smith, staff director of the President's National Space Commission: "We are going to see massive disruption in the short term."

Once shuttle flights do resume, it will take years--whether two, five, six or more is anyone's guess--for NASA to catch up to the flight schedule it had mapped out before Challenger exploded. Three shuttles simply cannot carry out all the missions that had been assigned to a fleet of four. Meanwhile, there is sure to be a renewed, sharp debate about the goals of the U.S. space program, the role of the shuttle and even the perennial issue of manned vs. unmanned space flight.

While no one at NASA will even speculate on when shuttle flights might resume, other knowledgeable officials cite the sole precedent: after a fire destroyed an Apollo spacecraft on the launching pad and killed three astronauts in January 1967, it took 21 months before manned space flights resumed. "We've got to reckon in about those terms," says New Jersey Republican Jim Courter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who follows the space program closely. The moratorium could be shortened if the flaw turns out to be something that can be fixed fairly quickly. But it could stretch out for years if major modifications to the shuttles themselves or to the rockets that carry them aloft turn out to be necessary.

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