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Trawling through the wreckage

Horror greeted the firework display that lit up the skies above Texas on 1 February. When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its return to Earth, it shocked everyone — even the handful of NASA engineers who had worried whether the craft might have been seriously damaged by an errant piece of foam on take-off. But in hindsight, disaster seemed inevitable. Seven months later, the accident investigation board detailed how complacent NASA had become about the risks of shuttle flight, and how the space agency had long been trying to accomplish too much with too few resources.

The mood was very different from the 'let's-get-back-on-the-horse' reaction to Challenger's loss in 1986. There were no calls to build a replica replacement vehicle. Instead, the investigation board advised NASA to come up with an alternative craft fast, and to phase out the entire shuttle fleet as soon as possible — a decision the agency had been circling for years. Now NASA and its overseers in Congress and the White House are left struggling with how, or even whether, astronaut flights should continue.

The board also called for a national debate on the subject of manned spaceflight. So far, all that has come of this is a series of congressional hearings, with Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, New York), who chairs the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, taking the lead. Boehlert has argued that it is difficult to determine how NASA should proceed until it can be determined what, exactly, its priorities are: should NASA emphasize science, or manned missions of exploration? While confusion reigns, Boehlert helped put a halt to the agency's plan to build a new Orbital Space Plane until it can decide exactly what the vehicle will be used for — other than to serve as a lifeboat for the International Space Station.

As for the space station itself, this was the year in which research on the orbiting laboratory was supposed to be ramped up. Instead, those plans were put on hold, as NASA was forced by the absence of shuttle flights to scale back to a two-astronaut maintenance crew.

The best news for NASA from 2003 is that the year is almost over. The next year looks set to be one of scientific discovery, with a mission to retrieve a sample from a comet, two Mars rovers scheduled to reach their destinations in January, and Cassini due to arrive at Saturn in July. Press reports have also suggested that the White House will unveil a new space initiative — possibly a return to the Moon — within the next few months. Certainly, the agency needs to find itself a convincing new vision, and fast.


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Reichhardt, T. Trawling through the wreckage. Nature 426, 754–755 (2003).

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