Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Safe at last

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the return of the space shuttle to active service. Today, the Discovery has safely returned to earth. But rather than the joyous shouts of a triumphant return, it seems that everyone is merely relieved that disaster has been averted.

While it is true that there were some "glitches" in what was hoped to be a perfect launch, I can't help but wonder how much of the stuff that everyone got so worried about was really new. I expect the foam insulation that fell off, narrowly missed hitting this shuttle (thereby almost causing the same disaster as met the Columbia two and a half years ago), was a real, serious problem, and I certainly agree with NASA's decision to ground future shuttle flights until the problem can be solved. But I can't help but wonder if the pieces of gap liner that astronaut Stephen Robinson pulled out from under the Discovery were really a threat. No shuttle had ever been examined as thoroughly as this one had been before. For all we know, nearly all previous successful shuttle flights had similar material sticking out from underneath the shuttle. We would never have known if it weren't for all of the new equipment installed for this launch.

Once discovered, NASA made the right call in erring on the side of caution. If we'd known about this potential issue from past launches, we might have known whether or not it was really an issue by now. If this situation is, in fact, a common one, the evidence of all the successful shuttle landings from the past would indicate that it was an unneccessary risk to bring an astronaut underneath the delicate underbelly of the shuttle, where a wrong move could have created an even worse problem than the one they were attempting to solve. But we didn't know, and likely can never know whether this phenomenon has occurred in the past. NASA had to make the decision to undertake repairs based on the information they had available to them.

Then there were the concerns raised about the apparently torn blanket near the cockpit. This blanket was, in fact, determined to be a non-issue. But the discovery of it lended even more anxiety to an already stress-filled mission. Again, I can't help but wonder if this situation has actually been a common one for 20 years now, and we've just never known about it.

At the end of the day, more information is always better. But it's worth remembering that space travel has always been a risky endeavour. Astronauts spend ages training for situations that they will probably never, ever, face. But they might. It was exactly that kind of training that allowed the repair mission to be completed. Robinson was able to successfully navigate under the shuttle aided by James Kelly, who operated the robotic arm that carried Robinson most of the way to the necessary location. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi served as "lookout" and a back-up go-between for Robinson and Kelly in case Robinson's communications system failed during the operation. These astronauts (and the others who were part of this mission) were well prepared for all the risks they faced, knowing that there was still a chance that disaster could repeat itself. But they went anyway. The very definition of bravery!

I hope that NASA takes an appropriate amount of time to truly solve these problems, and that they continue to make space flight as safe as it can possibly be. However, at the end of the day, there will still be unanswered questions and risks will remain. Whatever risks remain, I hope that NASA will continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge and press on in the exploration of the final frontier. The bravery of the astronauts who have chosen to be a part of that exploration (including those who have died participating in it) deserves that respect.

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