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updated 12/11/2006 2:32:02 PM ET 2006-12-11T19:32:02

How could NASA improve on a week that saw a successful space shuttle launch against bad-weather odds, the unveiling of an exciting new mission to the moon and a tantalizing discovery on Mars?

With a Nobel Prize, of course. NASA scientist John C. Mather picked up the prize for physics on Sunday — a bit of added glory for an agency that hasn’t always seen such happy days.

NASA has had “a great, great, great run,” said W. Henry Lambright, professor of public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “It’s a terrific week for NASA. I think the only reason it isn’t better recognized is that everything in public policy is overshadowed by Iraq.”

Asked if the space agency has had any week like the one that just ended, David Mould, a public affairs official, replied: “July 1969 comes to mind.” That’s when NASA landed the first man on the moon.

Still, top NASA’s boss wasn’t taking bows.

“I would never want to convey the impression that what we do at NASA is easy, because it is not,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a Saturday night press conference when asked about the great week. “Sometimes we stumble.”

Lambright noted that with some earlier space shuttle and Mars missions, the agency failed grandly, but learned important lessons in engineering and management that led to this week’s successes.

NASA had good news nearly every day:

  • On Sunday, Nobel laureate Mather, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, was honored in Stockholm along with George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for uncovering evidence that helped seal the big-bang theory of the universe. Their findings were based on data from a NASA satellite.
  • On Saturday night, mission managers successfully launched the space shuttle Discovery, despite entering the afternoon two hours behind schedule on fueling the spacecraft and facing a forecast that offered just a 30 percent chance for good launch weather. Amazingly, the weather cleared by liftoff.
  • On Thursday, the White House announced it was giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom , the nation’s highest civilian award, to microbiologist Joshua Lederberg, a longtime NASA adviser in the search for life on other planets.
  • On Wednesday, NASA scientists announced they’d found compelling evidence that running water may have flowed recently on Mars. Some of the last pictures taken by the agency’s Mars Global Surveyor showed changes in craters that provide the strongest evidence yet that water coursed through them recently and is perhaps doing so even now.
  • On Monday, officials unveiled their grand plan for an outpost on the moon , which unlike Apollo, would involve a permanent human presence there.

NASA has come a long way in the past several years. In 2003, there was the wrenching loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts, then the grounding of the shuttle fleet and a long investigation in the cause of the accident. And from 1999 to 2004, NASA lost three robotic spacecraft due to small but embarrassing engineering mistakes, including the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter because of a mix-up between English and metric units.

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