On 20th birthday, renewed shuttle sees busy future


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Up close, the space shuttle Columbia's body shows every one of its 20 years and nearly 111 million miles of flying: pockmarked tiles, rust-colored blemishes and other stains that look like liver spots.

But inside, Columbia flaunts its renewed youth. Gone are its old-fashioned gauges and dials, replaced by a control panel that uses full-color computer graphics to show what's going on. The shuttle has shed a few hundred pounds. Most of its wiring is new. The engines are the world's most advanced. Columbia even has that new-car smell.

As NASA marks the 20th anniversary of its first space-shuttle launch today, Columbia, which flew that first flight on April 12, 1981, is more than a relic of history. It is also part of NASA's future.

For the next 20 years, the space-shuttle fleet will be America's only means of hurling astronauts into orbit. The space agency kept scrapping plans for the shuttle's replacement because they were too expensive or too primitive. Last month, after spending nearly $1 billion on a prototype that was never completed, NASA pulled the plug and put its money back on Columbia.

The four shuttles are safer than ever and can keep launching at least another 20 years, said Robert Crippen, the pilot on the first flight, and other experts.

As designed in the late 1970s, they were intended to last 100 flights each. Columbia has flown 26 times, Discovery 28 times, Atlantis 23 times and Endeavour 15 times. Challenger, which exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts, launched 10 times. All told, the shuttle fleet has flown a total of 366.3 million miles.

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