Other Work

A Year Later, NASA Looks Back and Moves Forward;
Shuttle Disaster Spurs Change in Space Agency's Direction

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Sunday, Feb. 1, pg. A03

One year after the space shuttle Columbia fell out of a blue Texas sky in blazing fragments, the people of NASA are caught in a mix of euphoria over the Mars landings, hope for a rebirth of human space exploration a decade or so in the future -- and painful determination to return the shuttle to flight.

The accident, it is clear in hindsight, sounded the death knell for the aging shuttle fleet. President Bush has directed that the reusable space planes are to cease operations at the end of the decade.

And for the first time in decades, Congress and the White House have recognized the need to supply a worthy answer to the question: To what end do astronauts sacrifice their lives?

The flags of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fly at half-staff today for 17 fallen astronauts whose tragic anniversaries are within a few days of each other: those lost aboard Columbia one year ago today as they returned from space; the crew that died aboard Challenger 18 years ago last Wednesday (Jan. 28, 1986) during the ascent to orbit; and the three Apollo 1 astronauts who perished 37 years ago last Tuesday (Jan. 27, 1967) in a flash fire on the launch pad.

Bush handed the agency a call to action last month that gives human spaceflight the prospect of a renewed lease on the sense of lofty purpose and exploratory excitement that attends the Mars robots today -- and once drove men to the moon.

But for now, the only two humans in space, American Michael Foale and Russian Alexander Kaleri, remain locked in orbit aboard a half-built space station just 240 miles above Earth.

Indeed, the operations of the robotic Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, so successful on a planet 100 million miles away, have become a model of sorts for managers of the human spaceflight program as they try to instill fundamental change in their much-criticized organizational culture.

Bush has called for the space agency to focus anew, for the first time since 1972, on sending humans beyond Earth's environs to explore the solar system, beginning with the moon as a steppingstone to Mars and other destinations.

But the human spaceflight program, staggered once again last year by revelations of its failures, lapses and "blind spots," will spend the coming months preparing its temperamental spaceships, grounded since the accident, to fly again -- possibly as early as fall. . .