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News Briefs

Space Plane Is Blast from the Past

LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Columbia accident and growing doubts about the safety of the space shuttle are forcing NASA to accelerate efforts to build a new space vehicle -- one that can begin operating in less than a decade.

The space agency is awarding $135 million to three major aerospace companies to begin designing what could become a multibillion-dollar fleet of orbital space planes just big enough to ferry crews of about four astronauts back and forth to the international space station.

The plan, with little fanfare, represents a potential watershed in the U.S. space program.

In a departure from the ambitious goals it has set since the dawn of the Space Age, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants a modest system that will break no new technological barriers but instead reduce costs and improve safety -- perhaps by adding a crew escape system, for example.

The space plane would not have its own main engines, but rather ride atop an expendable rocket, such as a Delta 4 or an Atlas 5. Pilots would be a thing of the past, and maneuvering the craft in space would be small, automated thrusters. The plane would carry only tiny payloads -- making room for them would require reducing the size of the crew and removing seats, NASA officials say.

Study Shows Humans Difficult to Clone

THE WASHINGTON POST

New research suggests that it may be a lot harder to clone people than to clone other animals, an unexpected scientific twist that could influence the escalating Congressional debate over human cloning and embryo research.

The new work by scientists in Pittsburgh provides an explanation for why hundreds of attempts to clone monkeys have all failed despite successes in several other mammals. The scientists said they suspect that similar roadblocks exist for all primates -- the evolutionary grouping that includes monkeys and humans.

If true, researchers said, then Congress may not have to worry that basic cloning research on human embryos will lead to the production of cloned babies. Free of that slippery slope, they said, Congress could settle for less stringent restrictions on embryo cloning studies, which scientists favor.

But opponents of human embryo research said they see things differently. The new research not only identifies previously unrecognized hurdles to human cloning, some said, but also points the way to overcoming those hurdles. They noted that the scientists who did the work have already come up with a potential way to get around the problem.

The one thing both sides seem to agree on is that the newly discovered obstacle to primate cloning makes it more likely than ever that rogue scientists’ recent claims to have created cloned babies were hoaxes.