The Discovery Mission: NASA’s Countdown to Credibility

The impeding liftoff of Discovery is not just a return to flight of the American human spaceflight program. For NASA a victorious shuttle mission will be received by the public as a signal that the agency, shattered by the calamitous Columbia accident, is fixed.

Successfully returning the shuttle to active duty also means that the International Space Station can still be assembled in place...not abandoned in place.

Also, getting a shuttle off terra firma and safely back down again lends credibility to a visionary space quest: That NASA has the wherewithal to propel humans elsewhere, not only back to the Moon, but onward and outward toward the distant dunes of Mars.

But even with all the care that Discovery has received, the shuttle system remains a delicate beast of burden. One super-babied flight does not safeguard the human-rated space transportation system from problems down the road.

Just how important, then, is this shuttle liftoff to NASA's long-term future?

Public confidence

The results of a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released July 11 found that most Americans say they have at least a "fair amount" of confidence in NASA to prevent another disaster akin to the Columbia disaster in February 2003.

Nearly three in four Americans favor a continuation of the space shuttle program. And a majority believes that NASA is moving at an appropriate pace in restarting the shuttle effort. A majority also evaluates NASA positively for the job it is doing overall. 

The poll, carried out June 24-26, found that 74 percent of Americans say the United States should continue the space shuttle program, while 21 percent disagree. "Historically, Americans have supported the program, even in the immediate aftermath of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters," reported Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup Poll group.

While Americans express support for NASA in general and the space shuttle program in particular, the new poll found the public apparently less likely to favor a human trek to Mars, one of NASA's--and President George W. Bush's--future goals for space exploration.

Fifty-eight percent say they oppose setting aside the money for an attempted manned Mars landing, while 40% are in favor. Gallup pollsters asked the same question in 1999 and right after the touchdown of Apollo 11 on the Moon in 1969 and found similar results. 

Grandiose tales

Last month, the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste also criticized plans to move forward with missions to the Moon and Mars. They cited an impending record deficit, chronic management problems at NASA, and unresolved questions about the cost and feasibility of human missions beyond Earth orbit.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is self-labeled as the nation's largest nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government.

They too criticized a humans-to-Mars program, questioning its scientific value.

"The immense technological challenges involved are expected to be overcome by an agency that currently lacks the ability to launch a shuttle beyond low-earth orbit," said CAGW President Tom Schatz.

Grandiose tales of bases on the Moon and trips to Mars are reminiscent of the International Space Station, "which was once envisaged as a beehive of research, a stopover service station for space travelers, and an assembly and manufacturing plant," noted a CAGW press release. The International Space Station "is a glaring link in a continuous chain of space projects that are either abandoned, end in disaster, or deliver far less than promised."

"Mankind's future in space no longer depends on politicized bureaucracies and tax-funded boondoggles," Schatz concluded. "The success of SpaceShipOne, startup space companies, and the advent of space tourism have opened the door to an exciting future of private enterprise in space. Such endeavors are economical, realistic, and more likely to yield tangible benefits for mankind and taxpayers."

Symbol of national capability

Putting these criticisms of NASA aside, space experts say there are several reasons why returning the shuttle to flight is vital to the cause of human spaceflight.

For one, there's the question of continued human spaceflight as a symbol of national capability, said Roger Launius, Chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

"Because of its technological magnificence, the space shuttle has become an overwhelmingly commanding symbol of American excellence for the world community. It shoulders the burden for U.S. national power and technological prowess everywhere," Launius noted.

Despite its problems, Launius continued, the space shuttle has proven itself as one of the most flexible space vehicles ever flown. Its large payload bay enabled satellite deployments, as well as the capturing and return to Earth of spacecraft, including repair and redeployment of such craft as the Hubble Space Telescope. All this became possible once the shuttle began to fly in 1981.

"Requirements to perform these tasks have ensured that the crew of every shuttle mission has a much broader range of required activities than the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and even the Skylab programs," Launius said.

Shuttle: an honorable retirement

Then there is the shuttle's ability to muscle up into space the ingredients to finish building the "puzzle palace" that is the International Space Station (ISS).

"Without it, it is problematic that ISS will be completed in a form that will enable it to fulfill any of its promise," Launius explained. "The sooner we are able to return the shuttle to flight, the sooner we will be able to continue work on ISS."

Even with this assignment, "the time has come to give the shuttle an honorable retirement and to move on to the next human space launch system," Launius added. "It will take years to bring that new system on-line, but in the interim I hope we will fly the shuttle successfully, complete the ISS in a manner that allows meaningful research to be undertaken there, and then transition to a new system."

Re-engage the public

"Clearly a safe return to flight is critical in terms of restoring public and congressional confidence," said Peter Diamandis, Founder and Chairman of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, California. He is a leading advocate for personal spaceflight.

Beyond the shuttle's return to flight, Diamandis said, the future of NASA is dependent upon it getting beyond low Earth orbit with a clear vision and strong public support.

"NASA needs to re-engage the public, and the way to do that can be summarized into two approaches: Allow the public to personally participate; and do something exciting and wondrous which excites the public's imagination," Diamandis said.

Still, other space experts see a range of issues that need early resolution.

Political window

A shuttle return to flight is critical for near-term--the next two or three years--support for President George W. Bush's national vision for space exploration, as well as for the international obligations regarding the International Space Station.

"However, the sustainability of the vision for space exploration rests with an earlier retirement of the space shuttle...prior to 2010," stressed Eligar Sadeh, Assistant Professor in the Space Studies Department, John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"NASA needs to fly the space shuttle the absolute minimal number of times for ISS construction and move immediately as planned on a shuttle derived launch system," Sadeh said. "There is now a political window of opportunity to 'institutionalize' the vision for space exploration at NASA and with Congress as to budgetary appropriations."

Sadeh added, however, this window will only likely be there for a few years. As the Bush White House comes to an end, that window will shut, he said.

"If all NASA has is the space shuttle program for human spaceflight then it will likely bring about the end--or an indefinite postponement once again--of lunar base development and/or human missions to Mars," Sadeh concluded.

Time to go fly again

"Sometimes we fail and cry. But most of the time we succeed and rejoice," responded Ed Buckbee, an unabashed marketer of human spaceflight for four decades.

In 143 flights in 42 years, we have lost 17 brave Americans in human space flight," Buckbee noted. "The nation mourned and honored the crews of Apollo I, Challenger and Columbia with appropriate and deserving national memorials. It's time to go fly again," he said.

Buckbee is co-author of the newly published book, The Real Space Cowboys (Apogee Books), with former astronaut, Wally Schirra. The volume retrofire's back to the early, heroic days of the U.S. human spaceflight program that set the foundation for today's shuttle program.

"I believe the U. S. must return to flight with our astronauts aboard the space shuttle. We must continue to demonstrate our leadership in space, a place few others have ventured. The nation who is the leader in space exploration will be considered the world leader of was proven in Apollo," Buckbee stated.

"The American people expect us to again fly the Space Shuttle because they are proud to say it is our shuttle and the astronauts are our American heroes, the aces of space flight," Buckbee said. "They go where others dare not. We are proud to praise these courageous, brave and adventurous astronauts."

Great historical significance

For several observers, there is a sense that Discovery's return to flight is of great historical significance, ranking as high as other milestone making space missions of the past.

A triumphant launch and especially a safe landing is deemed an "absolute prerequisite" to NASA's future plans, suggested John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"NASA needs to get shuttle flying to finish the International Space Station. It needs to retire the shuttle as soon as possible and replace it with newer, safer, systems," Logsdon told, while getting started on human exploration beyond Earth orbit.

"None of this is likely to happen if this mission fails badly," Logsdon advised. "So this launch ranks up there with Alan Shepard and John Glenn's Mercury missions and Apollo 11 in its significance."

  • Fixing NASA: Complete Coverage of Space Shuttle Return to Flight

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.