Before the Columbia accident, station managers had largely fixed their technical and budgetary problems and were on the verge of getting that go-ahead. An earlier plan to build a habitation module for the crew had been scrapped. Instead, NASA began studying ways to provide air, water, and other supplies for six or more people in the existing modules.
That makes the Orbital Space Plane the wild card in the space station’s future. O’Keefe, who—in either a clever career move or an example of karma—now heads NASA, has asked industry to accelerate designs for such a vehicle. Originally the space plane was supposed to be ready by 2010. Now NASA wants it to start flying by 2008 or sooner—a tall order.
But until it does, the space station will not be able to live up to its potential as a research laboratory, and critics will continue to express doubts about its value. Which leaves the orbiting outpost stuck again, even as the finish line finally appeared within reach.