Fly the friendly skies

This week’s visit to our comrades at Pravda gives us this sober, but accurate view of the American decision to ground future space shuttle missions (the earliest being the Atlantis, which could have been ready to launch in around a month). It means at some point very soon, NASA must make a decision as to whether it wants to risk the current crew of seven astronauts in a reentry of the Discovery, which suffered damage to its heat shields during lift-off, pretty much the same problem blamed for the deaths of seven astronauts in the Columbia disaster, or does NASA want the astronauts to remain at the International Space Station while Russian Soyuz space-craft are sent up to retrieve them (which would take a few months to complete).
The article notes a number of issues concerned with the decision to launch Discovery in the first place, given multifarious issues associated with it, and notes that there may well be political concerns associated with an evident American need to project its own technological superiority.
This troubles me immensely. Each of the prior shuttle disasters involved some sort of publicity gimmick, and an evident “damn the torpedoes” attitude to get the thing up despite problems that should have been addressed. In the case of the 1980’s Challenger disaster, it was Christa McAuliffe, the “schoolteacher in space”. In the Columbia disaster, it was an Israeli air force colonel. This time, there appears to have been a similar “damn the torpedoes” decision to launch the shuttle– just to show we could do it. I truly pray that I am exactly wrong on this, and that the problems are minor and the crew can be returned safely to Earth. Or at least, that this time, NASA understands that a third shuttle disaster will result not merely the death of the astronauts involved, but of its manned space program altogether, and calls on the Russians to get us out of this.
The shuttle program, heavily reliant on retrofitting modern appendages to basically 1970’s technology, is problematic. The reusable reentry vehicle was thought likely to save money from fully discarded rockets that launched the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs. The Russians stayed with their Soyuz program of big rockets launching smaller payloads when people are involved, larger payloads when its “stuff only”. The ridiculous American need to launch both people and large payloads in the same vehicle continues to plague the shuttle program.
Let’s all pray that practicalities and safety protocols trump political expediencies here, and the most intelligent decisions available to protect the safety of the astronauts involved are what prevails, and that the courageous crew of Discovery returns safely to Earth.