The last shuttle

April 26, 1991

The U.S. opened a new chapter in its space program yesterday with the ceremonial rollout of Endeavour, the space shuttle built to replace the ill-fated Challenger. NASA officials say that Endeavour will be the best shuttle yet, able to stay in orbit longer and land more safely on returning than any of its three sister ships, Atlantis, Columbia and Discovery.

In the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy five years ago, many aerospace experts believed the nation's commitment to space required a massive effort to replace the destroyed shuttle, even at a cost of some $2 billion. But in the years since, the military has sharply reduced its reliance on manned space vehicles for lofting payloads into orbit.

Meanwhile, work goes ahead on the national aerospace plane, a revolutionary craft capable of taking off from conventional runways like an airplane and flying directly into orbit. These developments, coupled with the fact that, even when it was new, the shuttle basically relied on '60s-vintage technology, mean the current fleet may be approaching obsolescence in any case. NASA originally envisioned a fleet of seven shuttles, but it now appears likely that Endeavour will be the last of its type.

Still, Endeavour represents another milestone in America's quest to push back humanity's last frontier. Sometime in 1992, the stubby-winged craft will blast off from Cape Kennedy on its first mission aloft, and the hopes and prayers of a nation will go with it.

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