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Feels Like the First Time: Learning With Every Mission

Thebig 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; andTwo, the value of the multibillions of dollars we've spent on the InternationalSpace Station (ISS) and the antique Space Shuttle.

Unlessyou've been oblivious to the events of the past few days, you've seen dramaticevidence of answers to both.

First,Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins performed a tricky maneuver with the shuttlewhen she "cart-wheeled"it around so that astronauts on the ISS could see the bottom of the ship: Neverbeen done before.

Next,unprecedented pictures taken during the mission from liftoff to today showednumerous things that needed to be considered for the safety and success of theflight. Those pictures showed, among other things, two tiny scraps of fillermaterial sticking out between a couple of the tilesthat shield the craft from the intense heat of re-entry. Would they pose aserious hazard? Maybe, so they decided to fix it.

Thenastronaut Stephen Robinson, tethered to the end of the ISS'srobotic arm, went under Discoverywith several alternatives for removing the scraps of filler. Theeasiest method of removal? Grab the offending scraps and pull them out!He did, and it worked: Never been done before.

Astronautshad never been under the shuttle; the robotic arm had never been swung aroundlike this; the repair had never been tried.

Withevents like this--the "first time"--how can anyone say that we'velearned all we need to know to live and work in space? Old as it is, theshuttle is still an experimental vehicle even though the fleet has completedmore than 100 missions. True, there have been two catastrophic losses with thedeath of fourteen astronauts, but no exploration has ever been done withoutloss.

Criticssay the ISS is just circling round and round mostly doing "routine"maintenance. How "routine" is it when the oxygen generator fails andingenuity has to be used to create air? How "routine" is it when agyroscope 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'rea long way from being a spacefaring civilization whenthere are so many "first time" things being done. We're a long wayfrom going back to the Moon, and even farther from going to Mars. But one thingis for sure: If we don't keep doing things like we've seen the past few days,we'll surely never get there.

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