June 30, 2006

RAND SIMBERG ON THE NEXT SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH:

Many have criticized this decision, claiming that it was reminiscent of the same kind of “launch fever” that destroyed the Space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, with their crews. There are two differences, though.

First, the previous decisions were made out of the public eye, with dissent against them discouraged by management. This decision was made in the open, with an explanation publicly provided by the administrator, and ample opportunities for discussion and disagreement.

Second, the risk of concern (more foam falling off the external tank, and striking the orbiter in a manner similar to that which doomed Columbia) is to the vehicle, but not necessarily to the crew, despite hysteria on the part of some of the critics. Even AA O’Connor agrees with this, which is why he has accepted his boss’s decision to go forward. This is because in the event of damage to the Thermal Protection System, unlike the ill-fated Columbia, Discovery will be going to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will have more options: Potential damage can be inspected and possibly repaired, and if not, the crew can stay there safely until a rescue vehicle can be brought up to return them to earth.

It’s not likely that this will be a problem — we flew over 100 flights previous to the loss of Columbia, and we probably lost foam every time — we just weren’t looking for it — so last July’s “close call” isn’t necessarily as worrisome as some would make it out to be. But if this does occur, it would likely represent the end of the shuttle program (an eventuality that can’t come soon enough for some, even some space enthusiasts). It is no secret that Dr. Griffin would like to end it as soon as possible, to free up money for the president’s new lunar/Mars initiative, and has basically stated that he would end it if there’s another accident, not just because it would be yet another indicator of the system’s unreliability, but because it’s probably impractical to complete ISS construction (the only purpose for which shuttle survives at all) with a fleet of only two orbiters. And the dirty secret, of course, is that despite talk about using the ISS in support of the new exploration programs, the only real reason we’re spending the many billions of dollars and years that it will take to complete it is (uncharacteristically, in the thinking of many reflexive opponents of this administration) to meet our obligations with our international partners in Europe and Japan. But even that reason wouldn’t be good enough in the face of another major shuttle mishap.

Read the whole thing.