Video: Critics question shuttle's future

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/28/2005 7:36:13 PM ET 2005-07-28T23:36:13

Before the Discovery launch, the space shuttle Atlantis was being prepared for its next mission in September. It is now on indefinite hold. But NASA officials say they have no plans to scrap the entire shuttle program before its scheduled termination date of 2010.

“No one is folding their tent,” says NASA Flight Operations Manager John Shannon, adding, “No one is down in the mouth.”

But critics say the recurring foam-debris problems points out the danger — and needless expense — of continuing the manned shuttle program, which has been flying for nearly a quarter century.

Alex Roland, a former NASA historian now with Duke University, says manned shuttle flights should end with Discovery's return.

“If they can't fix it this time,” says Roland, “it's hard to imagine the circumstance in which they would be credible at some future date in saying they had fixed it.”

After the Columbia shuttle accident in February 2003, NASA asked independent experts to monitor its safety changes. The Return to Flight Task Group concluded last month that, despite NASA's many improvements, the external fuel tank “still sheds debris that could potentially cripple an orbiter.”

“Our feeling was NASA would never be successful in preventing material from falling off,” says accident board member Douglas Osherhoff.

Still, former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, now an NBC analyst, argues the shuttle flights must continue to build and supply the international space station.

“The shuttle is the best truck going,” he says. “It's the best capacity to actually haul the cargo and get it there.”

Supporters also say ending the shuttle program now could cost NASA the expertise needed for future missions to the moon and Mars.

It all adds up to an aging fleet, now on hold, and once again under intense scrutiny.

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