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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Discovery Flight a Reminder of Doubts in Shuttle's Future

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- As Discovery stands on the launch pad poised to take off on the first shuttle flight since the destruction of Columbia 2 1/2 years ago, a debate is raging over how much longer America's workhorse of space can struggle on.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has vowed to end the star-crossed program by 2010, saying the spacecraft had labored long enough. He is setting the space agency's future on a next-generation shuttle, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, that will not be operational before the current fleet retires.

That plan could create a gap of several years when the United States would not be capable of space flight, while Russia and China would continue flying.

Some scientists and congressional supporters of the shuttle say pushing the craft into retirement would be a blow to U.S. research and prestige.

Senator Kay Hutchison, a Texas Republican and chair of the Senate science and space subcommittee, said: "The possibility of a gap in spaceflight must be eliminated if the U.S. wants to be a leader in space exploration."

Yet in a reminder of the fragility of the spacecraft, a temporary glitch developed late Tuesday when a plastic cover on an overhead window on the orbiter fell 18 meters and damaged several tiles on the left covering for the small engines used to maneuver the vehicle in space.

Other experts cite a host of problems with retiring the shuttle in five years.

"If we take the shuttle offline, the space station becomes a lot less useful," said Norman Thagard, an engineering professor at Florida State University. "The space shuttle and the space station go hand in hand."