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Shuttle Crews Stretched Thin

Mission Control called it "flawless." The space shuttle Atlantis and its seven-member crew launched on Friday the first of nine scheduled "assembly" missions to the International Space Station over the next 12 months.

CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports it's NASA's most ambitious flight schedule since 1985, the year before the Challenger exploded on the cusp of achieving orbit, the worst disaster in the history of space exploration.

This latest schedule has raised serious questions about safety.

"Space flight is inherently risky. NASA's shuttle work force has been cut by a third over the last several years and similar work force cutbacks led to disastrous consequences with some of our unmanned rockets," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

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A Perfect Start
The Atlantis space shuttle's 11-day mission will prepare the International Space Station for long-term guests.
A recent government study warns that a dwindling and aging shuttle work force could "jeopardize flight safety" as the pace picks up. It's a work force that's often under-trained and overworked, and here a mistake caused by fatigue or inexperience could be catastrophic.

Engineers and technicians perform nearly 1.2 million tasks between landing and launch to get each spaceship ready, but NASA insists that improvements are already underway and the necessary resources are in place.

"It's inevitable we that we're going to have a mistake from time to time. It's our job to minimize those," said NASA Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore.

The shuttle has been delayed before. CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood says it may be too early to tell how it will go.

"All of a sudden they're ramping up to this very ambitious flight rate, so yes, it does seem there is some pressure then to maintain that schedule," Harwood said, "but on the other hand they say that they've added the people they need, that they have the procedures in place to do it safely."

Atlantis is scheduled to reach the space station Sunday morning on an 11-day mission to outfit the orbital site before it opens for business in November.

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