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High costs, risks, policy shift make U.S. quit space shuttle program
by Staff Writers
Washington (XNA) Jul 11, 2011

President Obama.

Space shuttle Atlantis will soar into the sky Friday on NASA's 135th and final flight. Its scheduled return to Earth later this month will mark the end of NASA's 30-year space program.

Since its onset with the launch of space shuttle Columbia, the program has been seen as a cheap, safe and reliable way for space exploration.

Despite its great contributions to U.S. manned space flight, it has also left some grave and tragic lessons, making its termination inevitable.

Soaring Costs
Launched in 1972 by then President Richard Nixon, the shuttle program aimed to provide a new system of affordable space travel and proved to be NASA's most enduring project in its 50 years of existence.

In 1981, shuttle Columbia made its first shuttle flight for two days. It was the ultimate hybrid and the first reusable spacecraft.

Launched like a rocket and gliding back to Earth like an airplane, space shuttles not only can act as a space taxi to carry astronauts, but have the muscle of a long-distance trucker to haul heavy machinery.

The spaceship boasts more than 3,500 subsystems and 2.5 million parts and is nine times faster than a speeding bullet as it climbs heavenward. That versatility, however, has translated into higher costs.

NASA originally estimated the program would cost about 90 billion U.S. dollars. However, its actual cost stands at about 200 billion dollars, compared with the 151 billion dollars spent on Apollo which took Americans to the moon in 1969.

In an article in Technology Review, John Logsdon, former head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, drew a direct connection between the ravenous shuttle budget and the lack of other large advances in manned space flight.

"By operating the system for 30 years, with its high costs and high risk, rather than replacing it with a less expensive, less risky second-generation system, NASA compounded the original mistake of developing the most ambitious version of the vehicle," he wrote.

"The shuttle's cost has been an obstacle to NASA starting other major projects," he added.

High Risk
In terms of safety, the shuttles have never been as reliable as their designers had envisioned.

On average, one out of every 67 flights ended up with fatal accidents. Based on the rate of deaths per million miles traveled, the space shuttle is 138 times riskier than a passenger jet.

Seven astronauts onboard died when Challenger exploded about a minute after launch in 1986. Nearly two decades after the tragic blast, a new catastrophe descended when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated moments before landing in 2003, killing another seven spacemen.

Again, the shuttle program was shelved for more than two years as NASA stepped up efforts to make it safer. But experts say the fundamental problem related to shuttles' safety cannot be solved due to their "birth defects."

"It is in the nation's interest to replace the Shuttle as soon as possible," concluded the panel that investigated the 2003 Columbia accident.

Policy Shift
In 2004, former U.S. President George W. Bush made the decision to retire the space shuttles in 2004. Bush wanted astronauts to go back to the moon, and eventually go to the Mars. In order to save money for building a new spaceship to attain that goal, NASA had to stop spending about 4 billion dollars a year on the shuttle program.

President Barack Obama, however, unrolled a fresh project to build a giant rocket to send astronauts to an asteroid, and eventually to the Mars, while transferring to private companies the job of carrying cargo and astronauts to space stations.

During his first-ever Twitter town hall meeting on Wednesday, Obama said NASA needs new technological breakthroughs to revitalize its mission to explore the universe.

Admitting the shuttles' "extraordinary work in low-orbit experiments, the International Space Station," Obama said: "But now what we need is that next technological breakthrough."

He said that the United States should move beyond the space travel models it used in the 1960s for the Apollo program.

"Rather than keep on doing the same thing, let's invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us to places faster, allow human space flight to last longer," Obama said.

Source: Xinhua News Agency

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