Nasa has ordered a rescue shuttle to be on standby for every manned launch until 2010 when the fleet is due to be retired. The move comes despite the latest flight by the Discovery being a big success.
For all future shuttle flights to the international space station, space chiefs require a sister ship to be undergoing preparations to fly. It must be able to rescue a crew from orbit within 45 years of an emergency being declared.
Nasa has introduced the new policy following the Columbia disaster when a shuttle broke up on re-entry in 2003 killing all seven astronauts. The accident was caused by insulation foam falling from a fuel tank and damaging the shuttle’s wing on launch.
More debris was seen to fall on launch of the next shuttle last year leading it to be grounded again until last month’s successful flight. If a similar incident critically damages the spacecraft in future, Nasa will use the space station as a lifeboat until the rescue shuttle is launched. They have devised a plan to fly the damaged shuttle back to Earth unmanned.
The next shuttle, Atlantis, is due to launch on August 27 with a crew of six, pictured above after arriving at Kennedy Space Centre for a dress rehearsal yesterday. Photo: Nasa