10 Years of Shuttle Flight

April 23, 1991

A quiet anniversary passed April 11, just after the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth. Ten years ago, amid fanfare and exaggerated hopes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched what it fully expected to be a new era in manned exploration. But it never happened. The old saw about the best-laid plans going awry was proved many times over during the decade, as an expected 700 flights shrank to just 39, curtailed in part by the unforeseen technical glitches that can hang up any space launch and in major part by the heart-rending Challenger tragedy.

With the shuttle Discovery on the pad for yet another partially secret military mission and the entire fleet due upgrading for longer missions, it must be acknowledged that many successes came as well. More than 100 space shuttle astronauts, women as well as men, have traveled more than 100 million miles in space. Astronauts have spacewalked, sent into orbit 34 satellites, launched the Hubble Space Telescope and kicked off deep space probes to Jupiter and Venus. They have repaired disabled vehicles, retrieved the Long Duration Exposure satellite for materials researchers and helped recycle some satellites. On Atlantis' last mission, they shook loose a stuck antenna boom, saving a $617-million gamma ray observatory.

The critics make an excellent point when they say the United States should never have backed itself into reliance on a single vehicle for almost all space launches. They fail to make a convincing case, however, that manned flights have no place in space. The bottom line of space exploration is to extend humanity's knowledge and reach into the hostile environment beyond the Earth's atmosphere, and human hands, eyes, ears and capabilities will always have a major role to play.

NASA never succeeded in "revolutionizing space flight by routinizing it," but much was learned in the attempt. That savvy can be applied to the next generation space plane. And the agency could even claim some credit for the delays castigated by others, delays which resulted in the rise of a civilian space-launch industry, which might not have gotten off the ground if military planners had their way and kept all satellites on unmanned launchers they controlled.

Discovery's current mission is one of a dwindling number of military flights to conduct experiments for the Strategic Defense Initiative. If it lifts off tomorrow on schedule, this will mark the first time in five years that NASA has flown two shuttles in the same month. That's progress, even if not the dramatic kind NASA once envisioned.

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