Feels Like the First Time: Learning With Every Mission
The big debate among those interested in outer space centers on a couple things: One, do we need humans in space when robots don't need air, water, or food; and Two, the value of the multibillions of dollars we've spent on the International Space Station (ISS) and the antique Space Shuttle.
Unless you've been oblivious to the events of the past few days, you've seen dramatic evidence of answers to both.
First, Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins performed a tricky maneuver with the shuttle when she "cart-wheeled" it around so that astronauts on the ISS could see the bottom of the ship: Never been done before.
Next, unprecedented pictures taken during the mission from liftoff to today showed numerous things that needed to be considered for the safety and success of the flight. Those pictures showed, among other things, two tiny scraps of filler material sticking out between a couple of the tiles that shield the craft from the intense heat of re-entry. Would they pose a serious hazard? Maybe, so they decided to fix it.
Then astronaut Stephen Robinson, tethered to the end of the ISS's robotic arm, went under Discovery with several alternatives for removing the scraps of filler. The easiest method of removal? Grab the offending scraps and pull them out! He did, and it worked: Never been done before.
Astronauts had never been under the shuttle; the robotic arm had never been swung around like this; the repair had never been tried.
With events like this--the "first time"--how can anyone say that we've learned all we need to know to live and work in space? Old as it is, the shuttle is still an experimental vehicle even though the fleet has completed more than 100 missions. True, there have been two catastrophic losses with the death of fourteen astronauts, but no exploration has ever been done without loss.
Critics say the ISS is just circling round and round mostly doing "routine" maintenance. How "routine" is it when the oxygen generator fails and ingenuity has to be used to create air? How "routine" is it when a gyroscope the size of a refrigerator has to be lifted out of the shuttle, positioned precisely in place on the ISS, hooked up, and turned on.
We're a long way from being a spacefaring civilization when there are so many "first time" things being done. We're a long way from going back to the Moon, and even farther from going to Mars. But one thing is for sure: If we don't keep doing things like we've seen the past few days, we'll surely never get there.
- Fixing NASA: Complete Coverage of Space Shuttle Return to Flight
MORE FROM SPACE.com