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The Discovery's current mission looks like it will be the last Space Shuttle flight for the foreseeable future
Having looked at the photos showing a chunk of insulating foam flying off the external fuel tank, NASA has put shuttle flights on hold indefinitely. "Until we're ready we won't go fly again. I don't know when that might be. We're just in the beginning of the process of understanding", Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said. It is still too early to discuss the technical aspects. Analysis of the photos taken by the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) during docking on July 28 will make it possible to assess the damage to Discovery, and will probably reveal the reasons for the repeated foam problems that threatened the shuttle's security. But it is possible to assess the prospects for Russian-American ISS cooperation, despite the shuttle's vague future. The ISS is at the forefront of manned space flight. It has always relied on US shuttles and Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Moreover, the size of the station's many segments, such as Russia's future reusable FGB-2 lab module, requires that they be transported by U.S. shuttles. The Columbia disaster two and a half years ago almost put an end to the ISS program; a crew of two simply did what it could to keep the station running. Russian Soyuzes and automated Progress transport spacecraft had to cope with crew rotation and supplies. A bad situation was made worse by the fact that Russia's contractual commitments to deliver U.S. astronauts to the ISS will expire by the end of this year. From January 2006, the U.S. will have to pay for seats on Soyuz ships if it wants to use them. Judging by today's situation, it will obviously wish to do so. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin admitted that the United States will not be able to make effective use of the station without Russia, and not only because of problems with Discovery. The U.S. 2000 law on non-proliferation of missile technologies regarding Iran prohibits NASA from paying Russia's Federal Space Agency or bartering ISS goods and services, until the U.S. administration persuades Congress that there are no leaks of missile technologies from Russia to Iran. The Americans seem to realize that their shuttles are unreliable, yet they continue to stick with the ISS. Griffin and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a letter to U.S. lawmakers in the middle of July with a request to amend the law. If the requested amendments are introduced, Russian-American ISS cooperation will continue to develop on a commercial basis. The Russian space industry will be relieved of the extreme financial burden associated with the ISS after the Columbia crash. If lawmakers reject the request, Russia will have to revise its plans for manned missions in space. But in any event Russia and the U.S. are doomed to cooperation as the two leading space powers.
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