Saturday's fiery breakup of the space shuttle Columbia with seven astronauts aboard has raised new questions in the United States about the future of shuttle flights. But the Paris-based European Space Agency is among those supporting continuing the shuttle program.
Although the 15-nation European Space Agency is a sometimes uneasy partner in ventures with the United States, its director of manned space flights, Jorg Fuestel-Buechl, discounts growing criticism about whether shuttles like Columbia are safe and worth the expense.
"I think the shuttle is the most advanced and the most completely reusable vehicle we have from the world," said Mr. Fuestel-Buechl. "I think the United States are doing some excellent technology effort with that, and it would be a real catastrophe if such a program stopped."
Mr. Fuestel-Buechl says the cause of Columbia's demise should be thoroughly investigated, but he says NASA's space shuttle program should be judged as a whole, taking into account the more than 100 successful shuttle missions.
The Paris-based European Space Agency has no shuttle program of its own. Budget constraints and political opposition blocked plans to launch a small European shuttle a decade ago.
The agency launches disposable rockets from South America and is a partner in the International Space Station. Europe's initial $3 billion contribution to the space station includes a scientific laboratory, which is scheduled to be launched on a U.S. shuttle flight late next year. The European Space Agency will also contribute a cargo supply vehicle for the space station.
In addition, the agency puts scientific experiments on shuttle flights, and it had seven scientific packages on Columbia conducting a total of 80 experiments.
Mr. Fuestel-Buechl says the results of some of those experiments were transmitted to earth while Columbia was still in orbit, and will be part of the crew's legacy.
"Unfortunately, due to the loss of Columbia, four experiments have not been able to be brought back to Earth, so they are lost," he said. "But three experiments we have all the data and we can evaluate the experiments here on ground without any negative impact."
The European Space Agency and its U.S. counterpart, NASA, clashed recently over an American decision to suspend a planned extension of the International Space Station. The Europeans argued the decision would threaten an agreement to have at least one permanent European member aboard the station by 2004.
Now, with NASA's shuttle program under review, the Space Station project is facing further delays. Only Russia's relatively small space capsules will be flying to the space station until the Shuttle flights resume.