For some veteran astronauts, today’s transformation of the shuttle Discovery into a museum exhibitis a cause for celebration. For others, it’s a reminder of their regrets. But for John Grunsfeld, the one-time “Hubble Hugger” who is now NASA’s science chief, the dominant feeling is a sense of relief.
Discovery’s handover to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has re-ignited questions about the end of the 30-year space shuttle program. Why did they have to be retired? The short answer is that in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, policymakers decided that once the job of building the International Space Station was finished, it would just be too risky and expensive to keep the shuttles flying.
Instead, President George W. Bush decided to re-target the space program on destinations beyond Earth orbit. For Bush, the first focus was going to be the moon. President Barack Obama shifted that initial focus to near-Earth asteroids, but the endpoint is the same: eventually getting to Mars. And the shuttles could never do that. They weren’t built to go beyond Earth orbit.
Nevertheless, some of America’s best-known astronauts think the shuttles should have been kept around a while longer — particularly because NASA will be dependent on the Russians for rides to the space station for the next three to five years.
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