Neil's News

Post Columbia

1 February 2003

The saying at NASA is, "When the paper stack is the same height as the shuttle stack, it's time to launch." Yet despite their totally obsessive attention to detail, Columbia has been lost. Today won't be forgotten.

So, what's next? I see two equally plausible options, with not a lot of room for compromise between them.

In the first option, we come out of this stronger, like we did after the Apollo 1 fire or Apollo 13 crisis. Under this option the ISS crew is exchanged once or twice using Soyuz flights, then the remaining three shuttles are returned to service to finish ISS construction. Work on the Orbital Space Plane would be accelerated so that it could take over the manned launches in four or five years.

In the second option, we retreat and play it even safer, like we did after the Challenger disaster. Under this option the shuttles are grounded indefinitely. This causes the ISS crew to bail out in April. A year later the station is dropped into the Pacific (it can't survive unmanned for an extended period of time). Work on the Orbital Space Plane is cancelled since there's no space station for it to go to.

Only time will tell how the group-mind of the USA will react. And it will be decided quickly too. The next ISS launch (unmanned) is scheduled for tomorrow. Fortunately in the long term it probably doesn't make much of a difference since the Chinese are ready to launch. And they're not stopping at LEO.

[Update: Two days later, the tide of editorial opinion seems to be swinging in favour of continued exploration. Though those who want to cancel everything are still quite vocal. And then there are a few who really don't get it.]

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