No country ever built an airplane by running for the hills and abandoning the program the first time a bolt sheared or a rivet popped during test flight. Our effort to conquer the seas was not cast on the trash heap of history the first time some ship sprung a leak.
These points seem to be lost on our current generation of lily-livered commentators and pundits, and even a few faint-hearted friends in Congress. In the wake of the successful launch of Discovery, a chorus of these timid souls seem willing to abandon human spaceflight at the first sign of evidence confirming that which we all know — putting humans in space is a tricky, difficult, unforgiving and risky business.
It is, nonetheless, worth it all. I shudder to think where our country would be if this “do nothing, risk nothing” attitude had prevailed throughout our history. Our territories west of the Mississippi would likely fly the French and Mexican flags, railways would never have crossed the continent, and heaven knows the defense department never would have been allowed to fund the Wright Brothers and that risky, dangerous, flying machine contraption.
A test flight is a test flight. It is designed to ferret out problems and flaws. If you understand this, then you understand that STS-114 in its first week was a fabulous success that generated a treasure trove of knowledge that will make future human spaceflights — not only of the space shuttle but of any spacecraft — better.
I normally balk at overreacting to anything that happens at NASA. In speeches around the country, I usually start by debunking the notion that NASA “is” space — pointing out that the largest space agency in the world is the U.S. Air Force, that NASA accounts for less than 10 percent of space activity worldwide and that since 1996 commercial space activities have comprised the largest sector of the market.
But it matters what NASA does. The fact that hundreds of millions of people watched the launch of Discovery on television, a half-million showed up in person in Florida for the launch and another half-million more had it streamed to their desktops should tell us all we need to know.
Human spaceflight and space exploration is what captivates the minds and hearts of our people, especially our youth, and propels us forward.
Warts and all, foam shedding and all, the fact that virtually every newspaper in America (and most around the globe) had space exploration on its front page nearly every day for the better part of a week should tell us something. We know it is dangerous. We know it will probably always be dangerous. And still we want to go, for in going lies all our hopes, dreams and aspirations.
For all those cranks, sots, killjoys and ignoramuses who think the launch of Discovery was a failure — sit down, shut up, and listen:
- Spectacular Success No. 1 — Discovery is safely on orbit, docked to the international space station, and all indications are that she has suffered far less launch damage than any shuttle launched before. Human space exploration is proceeding. It is only the schedule of this exploration that will vary.
- Spectacular Success No. 2 — Thanks to the efforts of thousands of NASA, contractor and Department of Defense personnel (let’s not forget that the Air Force plays numerous critical roles in every shuttle launch, and that U.S. Strategic Command is also heavily involved), the new launch observation and monitoring measures performed brilliantly. We’ve collected more data and imagery on this shuttle launch than on any human spaceflight in history. The systems worked. Because of that, we know we still have things to fix on the external tank.
- Spectacular Success No. 3 — The NASA culture. Within moments of understanding that foam shedding is still a problem, NASA managers immediately and unequivocally decided that no further flights would take place until remedies are found. This goes to the heart of the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Whereas Columbia’s launch and return was the textbook study of how not to run a space agency, mission STS-114 is the textbook example of how things should be done.
In short, NASA is back. Get over it.
None of this means the shuttle program won’t change, or that plans for developing a replacement won’t be altered. There are legitimate questions about what fixes need to be made next, and whether the time and cost of those fixes is the best way to crank up the space agency and vigorously pursue the Vision for Space Exploration.
But those things should happen in view of the lessons learned on this flight, not despite them.
Elliot G. Pulham is president and chief executive officer of the Space Foundation.