Determined never to repeat the tragic Challenger launch accident, NASA not only is developing a crew escape system for the space shuttles’ replacements; the space agency also has a backup system that could fly astronauts to safety in case of an emergency.

Significantly improving safety is one of the reasons the United States is retiring its three-ship shuttle fleet after five more missions in 2010 to complete construction of the International Space Station.

The shuttles began flying in 1981. Two of the 129 flights ended in disaster, including the Jan. 28, 1986, loss of Challenger, which was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff due to a leak in one of its booster rockets.

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