A butterfly strapped to a bullet....
Whew! They did it! They're home now, and we can all breathe a little easier. I know I had a rather tense hour or so there while we were waiting to see if they were going to make it home safely in spite of everything. A lot of people have been getting up on their high-horse about the Space Shuttle and the program in general. They're old birds and they've been through a lot, there's no question. But they sure don't deserve the bum rapping they're getting from some pundits.
The orbiter itself didn't cause either accident. In both cases, it was an external component (the SRB O-ring and the insulation on the external tank) that caused the damage. The external tank and SRB's are not the best way to do this job. NASA knew that when they were designed. However, they were the way that the government was willing to pay for it. The alternatives were considerably more expensive. The initial designs for the Shuttle were actually supposed to work like SpaceShip One, where a specially modified 747 would carry the orbiter up to where the air was thin and it would then launch from there. With that configuration, there would be no need for the SRB's or the External tank. All the fuel needed to get into orbit and come home could be carried on the Orbiter, and the weight limitations that necessitated the decision to go with those fragile tiles would be lessened.
They didn't go with it - at the time rocket technologies were not at the place they are now and it was considered safer and better go with what they had more experience with from the Apollo program which were external boosters and big steaming tanks of LOX. Astronaut story Musgrave once refered to it as a "butterfly strapped to a bullet". The original design and testing weren't totally wasted - the planes modified to move the orbiter from the various landing fields back to Florida is the one that was originally modified for the launches and used to launch the test-frame Enterprise to prove the thing could glide.
Columbia was almost 28 years old. It was the first shuttle to launch. A little history lesson: They began construction on Columbia's fuselage on March 27, 1975, and launched for the first time on April 12, 1981. It flew 28 flights, spent 300.74-days in space, completed 4,808 orbits, and flew 125,204,911 miles in total, including its final mission.
Those numbers are nice, but these are the heads of the brass tacks. The Space Shuttle Program has launched 113 times. There have been a total of 696 astronauts. It's had two failures that killed 14 of them. Foam has hit the various orbiters over 15,000 times during launches since the inception of the program. It's done enough damage to harm the orbiter seriously once.
How many NASCAR races do they go without an accident? How about a serious injury or fatality? Now, before you start going on about the fact that NASCAR and NASA aren't the same you might want to look at it again. The orbiter and a stock car are both machines clocked out to the edge of design tolerances and flying along at the creased edge of the envelope. There are design decisions made because of external forces rather than engineering reasons all through them (restrictor plates, for example). There are forces both economic and political that keep men risking their lives to do this every single week, and people die doing it on a fairly regular basis. And with our President's blessings, I might add. There have been 32 deaths in offically sponsored NASCAR events, and I can't get a decent answer about how many injuries or even death information out of anyone else. The tolerance band is a little tighter on NASA, though. Some very small errors that would result in injury or a crash you can walk away from on the ground or in atmosphere are irrecoverable in the case of spaceflight. Even so, it's a testament of the care that is taken by those men and women that those numbers aren't higher in the case of both systems.
The ISS has a few issues of it's own to face. Outside of the technical strain of not being properly supported for over a year and several delays in the deployment of more pieces of it, there's some political BS on the way. After April 2006 American astronauts are not going to be allowed to set foot on the Space Station thanks to the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992 thanks to some short-sighted lawmaking during some political stumping by President Clinton that didn't take into account the the space program's newly international connections. Russian companies that have built several integral components of the ISS don't qualify with their reporting requirements and therefore American citizens cannot have any contact with the hardware in question. It'll be interesting to see how they handle this in the Senate - they're the ones who would have to amend the rule and give NASA a waiver here. The Russians have begun balking on their commitments due to budget pressures of their own. It'll be interesting to see how this all pans out.
Despite blithe assertions from many proponents, launching from boosters on the ground isn't exactly the most risk-free business, and the costs are not trivial. The recent failures of two booster launches using Russian hardware that resulted in the loss of the payload should highlight for you the dangers and costs that approach entails. I'd be curious to find a hard number on the amount of money lost due to destroyed payloads and cost-overruns on booster-launched projects since 1981. Contrasting it with the costs of running the Shuttle program would be interesting. And as far as robotic missions, let's talk about those three missions to Mars they lost through braindead errors. They weren't exactly a small dent in the pocketbook either. Yes, there's no bodies involved, but many of these pundits get very shrill and loud about the expense of manned spaceflight and if it's money that's your problem boosters are still a very risky proposition.
Space Shuttle Discovery launched with one of the most experienced commanders the space program currently has. They're doing what they can to make sure it's safe. And even with all the testing and re-checking I'm sure they're all a little tight-jawed. Just like Wally Schirra and his gang who had to step into Apollo 7 after that pad fire I'm sure they went with a lot of prayers and with one hand on the abort handle. But they did it. They had confidence in their co-workers and in that hardware. I have confidence in them and in the people who have spent the last years trying to find safer ways to do this. And all our confidence was born out when they rolled to a stop despite that scare. And I have confidence they'll be back in the game will be once they do something for good and all about that bloody tank insulation.
According to Mr. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, the Shuttle's remaining missions will be concentrated on completing the ISS and then it will be retired in favor of the Crew Exploration Vehicle in 2010. When all is said and sifted and the dust settles in 2010, I think we'll find our butterfly gave good service.