Like an ill-omened comet, the bright white streak of the disintegrating Columbia space shuttle heralds the start of an unwelcome era for thousands of engineers and scientists around the globe. Beyond the terrible human toll, the 1 February disaster abruptly halts construction of the international space station, cripples life and physical sciences research, and calls into question NASA's plans to move beyond Earth's orbit.
The calamity's timing is bitterly ironic. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe had just set a new agenda for the agency and won White House approval. The 2004 budget request released today envisions a small, winged vehicle to serve as an alternative to the aging shuttle fleet and a host of technology programs to lay the foundation for more aggressive exploration of the solar system. Now the space agency's focus is far less visionary and far more immediate. "We must find what went wrong, fix it, and move on," said a shaken William Readdy, NASA space-flight chief, hours after Columbia's loss. That task could last years--and the future of the space agency and its partners will be reshaped in unexpected ways.
Although space science efforts--almost all independent of the shuttle and station program--are not likely to be directly affected by Columbia's demise, virtually every other part of NASA will doubtless be examined, reviewed, and rethought. The issues will range from whether NASA has gone too far in privatizing operation of the shuttle to whether O'Keefe's push for advanced technology now makes sense. A half-dozen panels, such as the House Science Committee, will want to weigh in on where a post-Columbia program should go.
The disaster destroyed the only space shuttle outfitted for conducting dedicated science missions. In Columbia's hold was a unique $100 million research module called SPACEHAB, which served as the focus for the scientific experiments performed during the 16-day mission. For biologists, Columbia offered the only way to conduct animal experiments until 2007 or so, when NASA launches the necessary facilities for the space station. "This is the end of an era--Columbia was the only thing available for research other than the space station," says Joan Vernikos, former head of NASA's biological research program.
And with the shuttle fleet grounded, construction on the space station is on hold. O'Keefe had set a goal of February 2004 to complete work on the basic structure of the station--called "core complete"--and construction had been proceeding well. NASA officials insist that three shuttles are enough to complete the station.
Everything now hinges on how long it takes to understand the Columbia failure, and then how long it will take to make any modifications to the shuttle fleet. "Our journey into space will go on," President George W. Bush pledged hours after the incident. Yet what form that journey takes depends on the results of the accident investigation under way.