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An act of Discovery: on the road again.

An act of Discovery: On the road again

"Welcome back, Discovery," said "capcom" Blaine Hammond from Houston as the shuttle rolled to a stop in California's Edwards Air Force Base at the end of the first U.S. manned space mission in 32 months. "A great start to the new beginning." Elation about the flight abounded, providing perhaps the most appropriate of birthday presents to a long-besieged agency that two days earlier had marked the 30th year of its establishment.

Embodying more than 200 design changes since seven astronauts died in the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger explosion, Discovery carried its crew of five veteran spacement on a model mission, high-lighted by the successful deployment of NASA's third Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS. (TDRS-2 was destroyed with Challenger.) The TDRS network will greatly increase NASA's communications with other satellites and the space shuttles. In addition, results of a dozen scientific experiments conducted during Discovery's flight, ranging from studies of microgravity effects to photographs of lightning in the atmosphere, are reaching their mentor's laboratories.

Less clear, however, is the direction of NASA's "new beginning."

Dale Myers, the agency's second-in-command, spoke of a coming "new era" in the U.S. space program: "The way I look at it, of course, is the priority of getting into the launching of a whole series of important planetary missions that we have had backed up here for two years . . . Magellan to Venus, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Observer, all precursors to future activities in space."

Yet Magellan, a scientifically simpler version of a previously planned mission, carries only a single instrument to Venus, a radar to map its surface. Galileo, scheduled (as is Magellan) for launch next year, was begun in the 1970s, so it carries instruments designed more than a decade ago. In addition, its trajectory, radically revised from the original plan, will not get it to Jupiter until 1995. The Mars Observer, whose launch NASA has delayed to 1992, has recently had two key sensors deleted from its payload to cut costs.

Besides interplanetary probes, Myers said, "the establishing of a space station is the new era that we really are moving into." The very day Discovery took off, the United States--after more than two years of negotiation -- signed a detailed pact with Canada, Japan and nine European countries covering their participation in the space station program. Yet the station's cost estimates, ranging from nearly $20 billion to more than $30 billion, give it tough sledding both in Congress and with researchers who fear it will drain funds from proposed unmanned scientific missions.

Meanwhile, NASA recovered Discovery's two solid-rocket boosters from the Atlantic Ocean and found no problems on first inspection. The boosters will be dismantled and studied in detail by contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah to confirm the reliability of the boosters' revised O-ring joints and other modifications. The next shuttle in line is Atlantis, tentatively scheduled for a Nov. 17 flight with a classified Defense Department payload. Then Discovery will fly again, tentatively on Feb. 18, to orbit another TDRS.

Barely had Discovery reached orbit when Shuttle Operations Director Thomas Utsman of Kennedy Space Center in Florida voiced another view of the envisioned new era at NASA. He did not invoke the agency's specific future aspirations to make his case, nor did he reintroduce the broader but just as thorny question of the U.S. space program's overall sense of purpose. His words more directly represented the elation of the millions of people who had just watched Discovery emerge like a phoenix into the morning sky, evoking energy and life in a program that has so often been accused of lacking either. "We're back out on the trail again," Utsman said, "going towards tomorrow."
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Title Annotation:space shuttle
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 8, 1988
Words:626
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