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Giving NASA Some Space

Practical solutions for improving safety in NASA's shuttle program are slowly emerging after the Columbia reentry disaster on Feb. 1. But there's one solution a deficit-conscious Congress must be braced to hear: Scrap the shuttle fleet altogether for a new kind of space transport.

Fixing the three remaining shuttles could cost as much as $10 billion, and even then not ensure safe flights in the future. Congress may find it wiser to order a new vehicle design. That's a tough choice, because it would severely delay manned space flight and jeopardize the US commitment to the international space station.

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NASA, however, still expects it can get 20 years more out of the current shuttles - their average age is 16 years - with fixes it's already making and any changes to be recommended this summer by the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The exact cause of the Columbia accident still isn't certain, but the board's chairman, Harold Gehman Jr., told Congress this week that NASA lacked enough safety checks and needs more engineers independent of management to spot problems. Too much double-checking of NASA's work, however, could cause "massive gridlock," its officials say, along with long delays.

Difficult decisions lie ahead on the future of the US manned space program, both in spending and whether to launch another shuttle sometime next year.

America's long-term commitment to using and exploring space must remain. Finding the right level of spending and acceptable risk will take the courage of an astronaut.