Ship Without A Mission

For a while, in the spring of 2000, Columbia was a ship without a mission. Then, just like the archetypal British bus, not one, but two suddenly turned up. One was a 16-day scientific research mission using a brand-new laboratory module, the other a much-needed servicing of NASA's coveted Hubble Space Telescope. After that, the missions for the venerable old workhorse dried up. It seemed that Columbia - once the pride of the Shuttle fleet, a veteran of 26 spaceflights - would end her days ignominiously in a hangar with a whimper rather than a bang, to be cannibalised for parts.

Tragically, as circumstances would transpire, the opposite was true.

The reasons were partly financial, partly political and partly due to Columbia's hefty weight. Already, by the turn of the millennium, NASA was seriously considering putting its flagship orbiter into storage as a means of dealing with rising Shuttle operating costs over the coming years. "It's on the table. It's an option,'' spokesman Dwayne Brown had told journalists. "We'll see what happens.'' Other options including scaling back or cancelling planned fleetwide upgrades - including the development of advanced APUs - and even risking staff layoffs by closing Shuttle test facilities across the United States.

Columbia's weight had already caused headaches in terms of the multi-billion-dollar International Space Station, construction of which commenced in November 1998. At more than 90,000 kg, and even after numerous improvements to shave unnecessary weight from her, she was still too heavy to haul large segments of station hardware into orbit. This was a pity, because her 26 missions between April 1981 and July 1999 had more than demonstrated her capabilities: 185 million kilometres flown, 274 days spent in orbit and 115 people carried into space, including citizens of the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Ukraine and France.

Of those 115 astronauts, two dozen had ridden Columbia into space on more than one occasion - and a handful as many as three times - and helped deploy or retrieve over a dozen communications, military, technological and scientific satellites and operate medical, biological, materials processing, fluid physics, combustion and astronomical experiments on a dozen Spacelab research flights. Her ability to provide a stable platform for sensitive, high-priority experiments had also, by Congressional mandate, assured her a 16-day research mission called STS-107 and it was optimistically hoped by the scientific community that similar flights would follow.

At one point, Shuttle manifests called for one long-duration flight by Columbia every year, devoted exclusively to science, during the first phase of building the International Space Station, as a means of ensuring that the United States' worldwide 'lead' in the microgravity research arena did not suffer. It was expected, eventually, that investigations would be conducted on a permanent basis on board the station, but until then Columbia could readily accomplish scientists' research needs. Still other options for the ageing Shuttle included drop-testing the X-38 emergency crew-return vehicle for the station and perhaps resuming military flights for the Department of Defense.

''Those discussions are ongoing,'' Shuttle manager Ron Dittemore said of the Pentagon talks, ''and whether they're going to conclude in a month or six months or a year, I can't say.'' Nevertheless, a presidential mandate enforced in September 1986, within months of the Challenger disaster, had all but banned commercial flights on the Shuttle and no requests from the Pentagon were forthcoming. Other possibilities included modifying Columbia for station trips in a 'visiting' - as opposed to 'construction' - capacity or using her to evaluate new technologies before committing them to her sister ships.

By the autumn of 2000, therefore, when astronauts began training for the research and Hubble missions, Columbia's future was very uncertain and it seemed likely that after these two flights she would be decommissioned, at least temporarily, until future opportunities crystallised. Moreover, as International Space Station assembly resumed that autumn, having itself being stalled for over a year, Columbia was far from ready to fly. She was three-quarters of the way through a protracted, $164 million series of modifications and structural improvements that were expected -ironically, perhaps - to make her the most advanced and capable Shuttle in NASA's fleet.

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