January 28, 1996
Web posted at: 1:45 p.m. EST
From Correspondent John Zarrella
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- Ever since the shuttle Challenger disaster, NASA has tried to rebuild its image and re-focus its mission.
The agency has succeeded in making the shuttle a safer spacecraft, but determining its future role in the space program has been more difficult.
Ten years ago, the Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after take-off, killing all seven aboard. The nation was shocked. And, for NASA, it was a brutal wake-up call that led the agency to restructure its personnel, systems and equipment.
The entire shuttle program "was an accident waiting to happen," said John Logsdon, an analyst with the Space Policy Institute. (136K AIFF sound or 136K WAV sound)
NASA no longer takes launches for granted. For instance, last July, the agency delayed the launch of the shuttle Endeavour for a month so engineers could fix an O-ring problem. It was an O-ring problem that caused the Challenger to explode.
Although NASA's safety procedures have improved, the shuttles are aging.
"The design is, admittedly, 20 to 30 years old," said Bob Sieck, shuttle operations director. "On the other hand, it's like an old tool in your toolbox. It works well, and you need to take care of it."
However, it may be the only tool NASA will have in its toolbox for some time. Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, who considers the shuttle the most sophisticated flying machine in history, says it is a great asset, but it "doesn't do anything." He considers that the "downfall" of the U.S. space program. (111K AIFF sound or 111K WAV sound)
NASA's hope is that the space shuttle and space station -- a large satellite designed for permanent orbit around Earth -- can serve as bridges that will lead to exploration of the planets. However, NASA has only token support from the White House and even less support from Congress, making the future of space exploration uncertain at best.
The lack of support, in turn, has affected NASA's research and development.
"We're already losing a lot of our young engineers because they're not getting the resources, either monetarily or physically, to do the jobs they need to do," said shuttle astronaut Bonnie Dunbar.
And within the next decade, the shuttle may have outlived its usefulness.
"We're running out of payloads that are the ones the shuttle is really designed to take into space," Sieck said.
It's just one more challenge for NASA to face.
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