Local News

Durham Professor: Future Of Shuttle Program Up In Air

Posted July 15, 2005

— Astronauts, engineers and others praised NASA's decision to delay Wednesday's launch, saying it proved the agency is on the right track. A former NASA historian agrees with them on that point, but says he questions the program's future.

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Delaying a launch is not unusual, but when the Discovery's takeoff was scrubbed Wednesday, NASA and its space program may have taken a direct hit.

"It creates the impression that they're not in control and can't run things smoothly, reliably and safely," said former NASA historian and Duke University professor Alex Roland.

When the space shuttle Columbia spiraled out of the sky in 2003, space travel was put on hold for more than two years. Since then, NASA has spent more than $1 billion on updating safety features on the shuttle.

Roland calls the anticipated Discovery launch a public relations mission.

"That is, it's NASA demonstrating it's back on its game," he said.

The space program, which has bounced back from setbacks before, is constantly fighting questions about its necessity.

Congress has about run out of patience. NASA's $15- to $16-billion-a-year budget is frequently under the microscope.

Roland says the money would be better spent on unmanned flights.

"If something goes wrong, you've just lost money," he said. "You haven't put any human lives at risk."

Unmanned missions may also yield more research results, Roland said. He points to the space probe Deep Impact that successfully struck a comet in early July.

"We're learning about the origins of the universe and what these comets are made of and when they formed and what they're formed of," Roland said.

The launch of Discovery should silence some critics, but Roland says NASA and the space program's future is still up in the air.

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