An editorial about Space Shuttle Discovery’s launch
The following is part of an editorial that appears in today’s New York Times. I think you’ll find it interesting.
“The apparently successful launch of the shuttle Discovery is cause for restrained jubilation. The astronauts are not out of danger yet. Only further inspections will tell whether their fragile vehicle sustained any significant damage on ascent. . . .
The striking thing about this shuttle flight is that the most important task is simply survival—of both the vehicle and the astronauts who are riding in it.
“The space program has been brought to this state by the disastrous loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the failure to fully eliminate the foam-shedding problem that caused that accident, despite three years of trying. In recent weeks, NASA decided to go ahead with the launch anyway so as to get started on the remaining 16 flights needed to complete the international space station before the aging shuttles are retired for good in 2010. . . .
“By far the most important work on this flight involves ensuring the survival of the crew. Should any damage be found that would prevent returning to Earth, the astronauts would be transferred to the crowded space station to await rescue by another shuttle or by Russian space vehicles. The astronauts might conceivably try to repair the damage in orbit, although that seems less likely given the rudimentary capacity for such repairs.
“Their scheduled activities include testing the stability of the long extension boom as a platform for shuttle repairs and, if there is time, testing methods to repair damaged shield segments in space. The astronauts are clearly only learning how to repair a damaged shuttle and may not be ready to do it in a crisis.
“The fate of the shuttle program may depend on whether Discovery returns to Earth safely. Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, has said he would try to shut the program down if another vehicle is lost. That would end all hope of completing the space station and of sending up a final mission to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s most productive scientific instrument.”