THE FLIGHT OF THE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY : Toughest Problem for NASA Lies Ahead: How to Meet Demanding Flight Schedule

Times Science Writer

Now that Discovery has returned the United States to manned spaceflight, the really tough part of the shuttle program lies ahead: meeting a schedule that many believe is too demanding.

It took 32 months for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to recover from the Challenger disaster--if indeed it has recovered--and today the agency finds itself locked in on a number of programs that will require vast sums of money and extraordinary luck to carry out.

The nation’s space program, as it is now constituted, will require the shuttle to serve as a workhorse, meeting a critical schedule of launches to serve many competing demands.

And that deeply troubles many experts.


Like Greyhound Bus

“This setting of a schedule as though it’s a Greyhound bus leaving for Peoria is not the way a space program should be run,” said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth, during an impromptu press conference at the Kennedy Space Center an hour before Discovery was launched.

Like many others, Glenn would like to see an aggressive space program with realistic goals that is less dependent on the shuttle meeting a rigid schedule.

That concern is underscored by the fact that even before the launch of Discovery, space officials said privately that they probably are not going to be able to make both of the next two launches.


Atlantis is set for a Nov. 17 launch on a secret Defense Department mission and Discovery is supposed to blast off again on Feb. 18 on a flight almost identical to the one it just completed.

Delay Likely

But the odds are that the next flight of Discovery will be delayed for several months. The purpose of that flight will be to deliver a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite to orbit, but the older satellite that it will replace is still functioning, so the flight is not considered as critical as some others.

If Discovery is launched in February, ground crews in Florida would be hard-pressed to get Atlantis ready for an April 28 launch that is considered vital to the unmanned planetary exploration program. That mission will be to send the Magellan spacecraft on its way to Venus. If Magellan is not launched then, it will be delayed nearly two years because it has to be launched during a critical “window” to reach Venus.

With the Soviet Union mounting an aggressive planetary exploration program, NASA has given Magellan top priority.

New Weather Rules

But many experts think the agency’s chances of meeting its schedule are very poor, partly because of new weather restrictions that reduce the opportunities for launching the shuttle.

“The flight rules they are operating under today make it very hard to believe you can meet any particular date,” said John Logsdon, director of the Institute of Space Policy at George Washington University. “They aren’t going to make 18 flights over the next two years.”


If he is right, many projects may be in jeopardy, including the Galileo probe to Jupiter next fall and the Hubble Space Telescope that is now set for a 1990 launch--four years behind schedule.

And the demands on the shuttle today pale when compared to what will be expected in the next decade.

Space Station

The centerpiece of NASA’s program through the end of this century is to be a permanently manned space station. The station, estimated to cost anywhere from $16 billion to $34 billion, depending on who is adding up the figures, will require 19 flights of the shuttle just to get it operational.

To date, only 26 shuttle flights have been completed, and one of those ended tragically, so the dedication of 19 flights to one project is a major commitment of resources.

The shuttle schedule lists 57 missions between now and the first space station assembly mission in mid-April of 1994. This schedule, issued Aug. 30, will be updated again in December and is “for planning purposes only,” not a rigid timetable. Yet it does show how critical a smoothly operating shuttle system is to the future of the American space program.