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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Shuttle fleet faces uncertain future
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Shuttle program managers Bill Parsons and Wayne Hale, AP
The issue of foam debris remains a thorn in Nasa's side
This mission was supposed to have started the shuttle fleet's return to flight. Instead there is relief that Discovery and crew have returned to Earth safely.

It seems like a journey that was beset with problems.

An ageing fuel sensor system held up the launch for months, pieces of gap filler were shaken loose during launch and, to top it off, the insulating blanket protecting the window was damaged.

The most serious incident, though, was when a suitcase-sized piece of foam was ripped from the fuel tank during launch, narrowly missing the spacecraft.

I think we might be seeing the last flight of the shuttle at the moment because of the problems that they've had
Dr Andrew Coates, University College London
It was this very same problem that led to the destruction of the shuttle Columbia.

The first question Nasa's so-called "tiger team", who are analysing the mission, will have to answer is how did this happen again?

A more important question for the future of the shuttle programme, howver, is how quickly can they fix the foam problem?

Quick fix?

There are launch windows in late September and once again in November. But Dr Andrew Coates of University College London thinks it could take longer: "I think we might be seeing the last flight of the shuttle at the moment because of the problems that they've had," he said.

Kennedy Space Center, AP
The US space agency faces more problems in the future
"There's not only the problem of with the foam insulation but there's also the problem with the ageing avionics - which was shown up before the launch, delaying take off.

"There was also the problem of thermal insulation around the commander's window. So I think in view of that it may well take some time before they fly again".

If Nasa does fix the foam problem quickly - it may well have the shuttle flying again by the end of this year or early in 2006.

HAVE YOUR SAY
There appears to be little point in launching manned missions in space anymore
Christian, NS, Canada

But even this short delay will add to the space agency's problems, according to Professor Andre Balogh of Imperial College, London.

"It's bad news for the shuttle and bad news for the International Space Station. The shuttle flights really ought to resume at a rate which can build the space station up to its expected standard," he said.

"However, it looks as though unless something else is done to the shuttle fleet to accelerate the rate at which they can be launched, the International Space Station will be in trouble."

Last year, Nasa said it could complete the space station in 28 missions. Some regarded that as an optimistic schedule. Now it is saying it could meet its commitments to its international partners with as few 15 missions.

Although Nasa has overcome an important hurdle by completing this mission - the space agency's problems may well have only just begun.



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