An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
July 11, 2005
We will have an early hint as to the answer when the shuttle Discovery, subject to the vagaries of weather and its own intricate construction, blasts off with seven astronauts and 15 tons of cargo for a 13-day mission to re-supply the international space station.
It will end the painful and prolonged hiatus imposed on the shuttle program when the Columbia broke up on reentry Feb. 1, 2003, because of a seemingly remote and insignificant event - a small piece of insulating foam striking the leading edge of the shuttle's wing.
The refitted Discovery has a redesigned fuel tank with more stable insulation, a new system of sensors and cameras to check for flaws in-flight, and even home-repair kits for patches by space-walking astronauts.
This time, the engineers and, admit it, the public too has confidence in that lessons have been learned and applied since Columbia. But they - and we - felt that way after the Challenger broke up shortly after launch in January 1986.
This is extraordinarily complex and risky technology, and, looked at in the cold light of risk analysis, two fatal flights out of 113 is not bad - surely better than the odds the early pioneers of aviation faced. But the goal, as it has been with aviation, is the full confidence that every craft launched into the sky - or space - will return safely.
To keep U.S. manned spaceflight on some kind of timetable, the three remaining shuttles must perform another 27 missions to complete the space station. And, one hopes, that NASA will fit in a repair mission to the Hubble space telescope before the shuttles are retired in 2010.
Then a new generation of spaceships is to take over, assuming the responsibilities of the current shuttles, but also the additional task of returning us to the Moon and laying the groundwork for an expedition to Mars. It's not being totally self-involved to say it would be great for this generation and this country to accomplish that.
Return safely, Discovery.
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