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From tragedy to the gap:
How America got here

A SPACEFLIGHT NOW COLUMN BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: FEBRUARY 1, 2012


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Nine years ago Wednesday morning in the atmosphere above Texas, seven humans died and the course of America's space program was forever changed.

The fatally-damaged space shuttle Columbia was heading home, plunging through the fiery heat of re-entry with a gaping hole in her wing, a wound suffered during launch 16 days before but had gone undetected throughout the microgravity science mission in low-Earth orbit.

STS-107 crew
The STS-107 crew. Seated in front are astronauts Rick Husband, commander, and Willie McCool, pilot. Standing are (from left) mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson (payload commander) and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, representing the Israeli Space Agency. Photo: NASA.
 
Powerless to change the fate that awaited them, commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Mike Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon all perished when their ship broke apart just 16 minutes before the planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The tragedy's cause: the lack of curiosity by NASA brass to understand the true dangers that insulating foam failing off the external fuel tank posed to the orbiter's fragile heat shield even before Columbia was launched, coupled with the lack of urgency to check the craft for damage in space after seeing the film footage of the suitcase-size wedge of foam slamming into the wing during ascent.

Columbia was the second disaster in 113 flights of the space shuttle program. Seven other astronauts were lost in the Challenger explosion in 1986 when the design flaw in the solid rocket booster joints combined with the decision to launch in frigid weather equaled irreversible tarnish on the U.S. human spaceflight program.

In the weeks and months after Columbia, investigators pieced together the wreckage of the once-grand spaceship and wrote a scathing report about the miscommunications and the lack of vigilance in the NASA culture that could allow another shuttle crew to be lost.

It was the summer of 2003, the orbiting International Space Station's crew had been reduced from three-person operating teams to just two-man caretaker staffs to keep the complex afloat while waiting for shuttle missions to resume.

The vast majority of modules and power grid for the station remained on the ground at Kennedy Space Center awaiting launches aboard the space shuttles. The European and Japanese space programs were standing by to see their multi-billion dollar investments in the international partnership get into orbit.

Building a space station had been the original intent of the shuttle program since the 1970s, and the orbiters had begun a job doing what they were built to accomplish. Finishing the International Space Station needed the shuttles, as there was no other vehicle that could haul up the pieces and assemble them.

Yet the three remaining orbiters -- Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- were grounded while NASA engineers sought to redesign the external tanks to lessen the foam risks, create new inspection hardware to check the heat shields in space after every launch and to come up with workable repair materials and techniques that spacewalkers could use to fix a damaged craft in orbit.

It would be 30 months between the launch of Columbia's ill-fated mission and the return-to-flight by Discovery in July 2005.

That two-and-a-half years would see dramatic changes in the course of U.S. human space travel, the impacts of which remain highly controversial and continue to be felt every single day.


This artist's concept shows an Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit, with the Earth in the background. Credit: Lockheed Martin
 
Before Columbia was lost, NASA envisioned continued flight of the shuttles through 2020. But the disaster prompted the White House to rethink the entire space policy.

The date was Jan. 14, 2004, on the briefing stage at NASA Headquarters in Washington, President George W. Bush stepped to the microphone and delivered a sweeping change in NASA policy that the space shuttles would fly only a minimum manifest necessary to finish building the space station before a forced retirement in 2010 and a new capsule spacecraft would be developed to fly astronauts to the outpost by the middle of the next decade.

Eventually dubbed Orion, the capsule that President Bush spoke of, and its Ares rocket booster, derived from a single space shuttle solid rocket booster and hydrogen-fueled second stage, would transport American astronauts to and from the space station, plus form the basis for resuming lunar missions by 2020.

It was "the vision" to getting beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since Apollo and begin exploring the solar system.

But the devil in those details, as laid out in 2004, was "the gap" of at least four-to-five years when the U.S. would have no means of launching its own people into space once the shuttles were permanently parked.

With that presidential decision, barely a year after Columbia was lost, the U.S. would have to rely solely upon the Russians and their Soyuz crew transport system for ferrying Americans to the space station.

NASA would pay its Russian space agency counterpart $50 million+ per seat to hitch a ride to the station that the shuttles largely built. But without a flying shuttle and no readily available U.S. alternative, the Soyuz was the only game in town.


A Russian Soyuz blasts off for the space station. Photo: NASA.
 
When President Bush made the shuttle retirement decision, the Russians already had picked up the role by default because of the post-Columbia grounding. Prior shuttle missions in 2001 and 2002 had been exchanging the station Expedition crews, but then Soyuz spacecraft began launching NASA crewmen on the station caretaker missions throughout the shuttle downtime.

And that Soyuz reliance continued even once the shuttles resumed flying in 2005 as the primary rotation of station crews remained in the hands of the tried-and-true Russian spacecraft that had flown without incident since 1971.

Once the shuttle fleet got flying again, the mission to finish orbital construction of the station was clear. The manifest was trimmed to the basic necessities and not much else.

After a war over canceling the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope due to safety fears, that flight was reinstated and conducted without a hitch in 2009.

Also in 2009, a new president arrived in Washington at a time when the Bush-era shuttle replacement spacecraft, the Orion, and the overall Moon program appeared to be faltering by unstable funding and the severe lack of enthusiasm. The shuttle's retirement date was looming and "the gap" for finding a successor for launching U.S. astronauts was growing.

Obama appointed Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, to lead the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee to assess where NASA was headed and what viable options were on the table.

That committee delivered a grim report on NASA's budget trajectory that said Orion wouldn't be available until at least 2017 -- 7 years after the shuttle retirement -- and the heavy-lift rocket for going back to Moon couldn't be ready until 2028.

It spelled the beginning of the end for the Constellation Program.

In Obama's next opportunity to set NASA's priorities and budget in February 2010, the administration formally killed the Bush-era Moon vision and turned to private enterprise to seek a commercial path to getting American astronauts launched from U.S. soil sooner.

This would be the start to commercializing space, with Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin vying in a competition to develop the hardware to launch humans into space. The capsules and spaceplane designs would ride atop either the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 or, in SpaceX's case, the Falcon 9 booster.

Today, all four are working toward mid-decade launches of people, if the funding comes through. In the most recent NASA funding bill, however, Congress slashed half of Obama's requested money for the crew launch effort.

The current agreement in place between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency is valued at $753 million for launching a dozen people aboard Soyuz vehicles from 2011 through 2016 for $63 million a seat.

When tallying all similar agreements together since 2007, NASA has paid $2.25 billion for 42 roundtrip tickets on the Russian system.

Orion was reborn under Obama, changing from a station servicer to a deep-space capsule for manned trips to asteroids or other destinations in the solar system. Builder Lockheed Martin hopes to send an unmanned version of the craft on a two-orbit shakedown cruise in 2014 and conduct the first piloted mission to loop around the Moon in 2021.


The final days of a shuttle in space. Credit: NASA
 
The final chapters of the space shuttle program were written in 2010 and 2011, all with safe endings and a fully built International Space Station circling the planet once every 90 minutes.

The shuttle flew 22 times after Columbia.

Two additional shuttle flights were added by the Obama White House, one to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the station for the study of particle physics, a mega-buck science instrument that had been left off the original post-Columbia launch schedule, and a final shuttle mission to take up a year's worth of provisions to the outpost like only the winged spaceplanes could haul.

At the Kennedy Space Center, thousands upon thousands of technicians turned in their badges as the workforce was wiped from the books when the shuttle program formally ended. A handful remain to perform the task of safing the orbiters and preparing them for museum display.

Even selecting the final resting places for the ships came with bitter controversy from the sites not picked to receive one of the three space-flown shuttles and the prototype Enterprise.

Discovery will head to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside the nation's capital in April, while Enterprise that's already at that facility will be ferried to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

Endeavour goes west to the California Science Center in Los Angeles late this year and Atlantis will roll down the road to KSC's Visitor Complex early next year.

Elsewhere around the country, the teams who built the tiniest of components to the gigantic tanks and boosters that made the shuttles fly were dismantled, including even the steely-eyed flight controllers who took care of the ships and crews around the clock during missions.

The entire infrastructure of the space shuttle program that had taken root over three decades was unplugged and left to wither away despite no viable replacement vehicle in the hands of the nation to operate.

Everyone knew on Jan. 14, 2004 that "the gap" would be coming once the final shuttle rolled to a stop on the runway. Still, that reality left a bitter taste when the moment arrived before dawn on July 21, 2011.



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