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Space Shuttle Columbia

A year after shuttle tragedy, NASA aims higher

Space agency turns to hope in year of mourning

By Bryan Long

As Columbia descended over Texas, an amateur photographer captured a flash of light from the shuttle's path.
As Columbia descended over Texas, an amateur photographer captured a flash of light from the shuttle's path.

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•  Audio Slide Show: Shuttle lost
•  Timeline: Investigation
•  Gallery: New safety guidelines
•  Gallery: Columbia crew
•  Report: Findings, counsel
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U.S. President Bush unveils the multi-billion dollar space initiative.
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CNN's Miles O'Brien on NASA plans to ask for an incremental budget increase.
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President Bush's space proposal includes a permanent presence on the moon.
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•Spend $12 billion on new space exploration plan over next five years. $1bn will be new money, the rest reallocated from existing NASA programs.
•Retire shuttle program by 2010
•Develop new manned exploration vehicle
•Launch manned mission to moon between 2015 and 2020
•Build permanent lunar base as "steppingstone" for more ambitious missions
•Complete commitments to  international space station by 2010
Source: White House 
Shuttle Columbia
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Programs
Sean O'Keefe

(CNN) -- When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated above Texas one year ago Sunday, NASA was quickly confronted with more than the deaths of seven astronauts.

In the midst of mourning, the space agency faced a web of problems that had been troubling NASA for years but had become urgent in the minutes between 8:53 a.m. and 9 a.m. of February 1, 2003.

Columbia was lost. And, in some ways, so was NASA.

The international space station was nearly complete. The shuttle fleet was approaching the end of its projected life span. And plans for the next generation of manned vehicles were in their infancy.

By and large, the goals of the manned-flight program had settled into upgrades, patches and overhauls until something better came along.

"Given all that, you've got to do something bold," said Art Zygielbaum, a former engineer and senior manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"You've got to get people's attention away from a space station that is a real money sink and a shuttle that is very, very fragile."

So less than a year after NASA's shuttle fleet was grounded and left searching the open fields and rural neighborhoods where remnants of Columbia landed, the space agency is once again looking toward the sky -- and this time it's aiming for the moon and beyond.

On January 14, President George W. Bush announced his vision for NASA, which includes sending humans to the moon again by 2020 and eventually getting them to Mars. (Full story)

Some say the proposal couldn't have happened -- or at least not so quickly -- without the accident.

Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Florida, is a space advocate who has pushed for years to retool NASA's manned space program.

He's among those who think losing Columbia shocked the space agency and the Bush administration into action.

"I think it just forced all the pieces to come together," Weldon said.

Keith Cowing, a former NASA engineer and editor of the watchdog online publication, said Bush had often discussed updating NASA's manned-flight goals.

After the disaster, Cowing reported, Bush told NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, "Tell me what you need to fix the agency."

Within months, the discussions turned from informal to formal.

As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board turned up new details of the crash the process of rethinking NASA's future gained momentum.

By August 2003 the CAIB concluded that a piece of Columbia's foam insulation fell off during launch and ripped a hole in the left wing. The hole allowed superheated gases into the wing interior, where they melted the wing frame.

It blamed NASA's culture as much as the piece of foam and recommended that the space shuttles be re-certified before flying beyond 2010.

By the end of the summer, Cowing said, the plan was in full motion.

The seeds of the plan -- the ideas that led to it -- started germinating in the decade before the Columbia disaster.

"It wasn't a shortage of ideas. You could walk through NASA with double-sided sticky tape and wait 30 seconds and you've got 15 new ideas, or notions of where we should go," Cowing said.

But until Columbia's startling wake-up call, the ideas remained stuck in the bureaucracy of studies and memos.

Retired NASA insider Zygielbaum hopes Bush's ambitious space plan is seen to fruition -- even though he has doubts about whether NASA will get enough funding and questions whether the president's announcement was aimed at boosting his image during an election year. He believes Bush likely wouldn't have announced such sweeping changes without the disaster.

"I think that Columbia, for all the bad, helped refocus attention on space and helped recreate the thought that there is a national priority that requires us to explore space," he said.

Thanks to cultural shifts within the space agency and the Columbia investigation board's stinging 248-page report, NASA studied its aging space shuttle fleet, the large budget required to keep it going until 2020 and, ultimately, the shuttle's mission.

The crew of the space shuttle Columbia photographed before their mission.
The crew of the space shuttle Columbia photographed before their mission.

Its vision for the future quickly came into focus. The space station would be complete within five or six years and would no longer require large payloads from the shuttle. Other than depending on the Russians, there was no alternative to reaching the station.

A proposed space plane with wings and landing gear remained on the drawing board and years away from production.

"We needed another man-rated vehicle," Weldon said. "But if we were going to build another man-rated vehicle we didn't want it to just support the station. Why would you spend billions of dollars on a vehicle that would just support the station?"

Instead, NASA -- with Bush's blessing -- decided to build a rocket that, unlike the shuttle, can travel out of low-Earth orbit. It could fly to the moon and, with adjustments, to Mars.

The concept, in one form, was originally pitched to President Richard Nixon. He favored the shuttle because it was cheaper and could support construction of the space station.

The Challenger disaster, 17 years earlier, didn't lead to the end of the fleet because it was much younger, and there was much more work to do on the space station.

It took the Columbia disaster to bring the plan back.

Without the Columbia's failure, the idea of aiming for the moon and Mars again "would have been a little tougher to sell," Weldon said.

Still, Bush's plan has many critics. There are concerns over the cost, the time-frame, the science and more. (Full story)

But even some of the critics can understand how NASA determined to send astronauts farther than ever such a short time after losing a second shuttle crew.

"Giving NASA a direction is really important for NASA and the country," Zygielbaum said. "And going to the moon makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons -- scientific being one of them. So I think it's a wonderful, wonderful adventure."

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