At 8:12 this morning, the Shuttle Discovery touched down on the alternate landing site in California, ending one of the most publicly followed space missions since the historic Apollo 13 mission to the moon.
All around the world, countries that financially back the International Space Station breathed a sigh of relief as Shuttle Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base after a 14 day mission. Yesterday’s scheduled landing at KSC/Florida, and again at KSC in today’s pre-dawn hours, were cancelled due to weather related concerns.
The NASA Return To Fight mission that started with a perfect launch, but then went through several days of high tension scrutiny as NASA and the shuttle crew assessed and repaired minor damage to the spacecraft, has returned safely to Earth with a picture perfect landing.
Despite speculation that NASA‘s shuttle fleet would experience “grounding” due to continuing problems with foam breaking off the shuttle’s fuel tank, it seems unlikely that this will delay the second test flight of the re-designed shuttle, once scheduled for September 22-26, but possibly pushed back to November due to the time it will take to return Discovery (now designated the back-up/rescue shuttle) to Kennedy Space Center for processing.
The incidents of “foam shedding” from the shuttle fuel tank was reduced from over 110 per launch (average), to under 25 for this latest launch. The reduction was described by NASA Officials as “a significant improvement”. The single most dangerous incident, the PAL ramp foam, was found to have been damaged and then repaired weeks before launch, leaving it potentially weaker than a non-damaged foam application. This chunk of foam did not impact the shuttle, but an impact could have caused significant damage requiring in-orbit repairs.
This “damage and repair” policy regarding fuel tank foam (in areas that could impact the shuttle) is something that NASA may flag as unacceptable for future launches. Even so, the PAL ramp foam may undergo modification before the September launch.
Far from being discouraged by the problems encountered on the mission, most employees at NASA are expressing great satisfaction and encouragement by the overall success of this mission.
Keith Cowing, a former Nasa scientist who now runs the NasaWatch.com website, said officials were confident and that “Nasa hopes to use the boost of a safely completed mission to announce it had solved the problem of falling debris from the external tanks, and that the next shuttle flight – scheduled for September – could go ahead.”
All things considered, this was a highly successful Return To Flight. With an expanded knowledge of how the safety modifications performed in actual launch conditions, a greater focus on launch damage identification prior to reentry , and the tools and experience to repair the shuttle while in orbit, NASA is ready to make the September launch of Shuttle Atlantis (STS-121) the safest mission yet.
With less than 20 flights remaining for the shuttle fleet before being replaced by a new generation of cargo lift and crew transfer orbiters, NASA needs to utilize its fleet for the very important job of completing as much of the International Space Station as possible.
There will always be risks in space flight, but America needs to understand that the benefits from accepting risks and pushing ahead despite them, far outweighs the tragedy of becoming so afraid of risk (and of public opinion in the event of the loss of another shuttle crew) that we abandon the achievements paid for by all of us, and by the men and women who willingly sacrificed their lives for the shared dream of human space flight.
We, the world, have a Permanent Space Station orbiting our planet. No minor accomplishment for a people that harnessed electricity just a little over one hundred years ago. I realize this is only the first small step away from our cradle, our home planet, but to have culturally diverse nations cooperate in the construction of a human habitat in orbit – is a wondrous, unprecedented achievement.
We are entering a golden era of exploration. We are witnessing a time when humanity finally reaches out to the planets that share our solar system and discovers the unimaginable. Take time to look at the pictures sent back by our spacecraft from Mars and Saturn, explain to your children that we are seeing things that no humans have ever seen before, and that we are solving some of the mysteries that mankind has pondered and debated for thousands of years.
Be inspired by this, for it is humanity’s ultimate dream come true. The dream that drives a species to expand its horizons out and away from its home planet. The defining event when a intelligent species stands together and cries out “The sky is no longer the limit.”
Note:Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launches Wednesday, August 10th