Discovery's STS-121 Mission: NASA Made the Right Call

The difficult decision made recentlyby NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to launch the Space Shuttle Discovery,despite objections from NASA's safety chief and top engineer, demonstrated solidleadership and the very qualities America has always embodied - boldness and daringin the face of calculated risk.

Leaders make decisions. Greatleaders surround themselves with discipline specialists and rely upon theirexpertise to guide those decisions. Those leaders have to factor in competingrecommendations of many experts, weigh the various risks and opportunitiesagainst the goals and objectives and make a choice.

In the case of the latest Discoverymission, now back from a successful 13 day mission to the International SpaceStation (ISS), Griffin indeed relied upon a panel of leading experts. In aface-to-face flight readiness review two of his most senior experts votedagainst launch, doing so based on their discipline's view of the risks for thisspecific mission. It was not their job to weigh the risks to the entireprogram. That was up to Griffin, arguably the most technically-competentadministrator in NASA's history.

Griffin had to weigh many factors pertaining to the shuttleprogram, ISS, and manned civil spaceflight. Another redesign of the shuttle'sfuel tank could cause the next launch to slip another year. Delaying Discovery'slaunch would have brought additional risk to ISS assembly and the shuttleprogram. Why? A delayed launch would have forced six flights within one yearbefore the shuttle fleet's 2010 scheduled retirement. The shuttle program isnot designed to accommodate such a packed flight rate without incurring considerablerisk. Another risk factor that was key to Griffin's decision was thepossibility of the United States failing to meet its international commitmentsto complete the ISS.

Exploration and settlementhave always entailed risk, requiring the courage of brave souls to ventureforth. Nations and leaders who understand this principle prosper. Only acouple of hundred years ago the mortality rate of explorers and settlers wasquite high. Dutch sailors figured that they only had an even bet of making itback home alive. In America, the first English colony, Roanoke, disappearedcompletely. Half the settlers in Plymouth died during their very firstwinter. The risks were great all across the continent. Death Valley wasn'tnamed after the scenic view.

Space exploration is thegreatest adventure embarked on by humanity, with perhaps the greatest rewards,and its ultimate potential justifies significant risk.

Space is worth the riskbecause exploration excites the human soul. Because it is so exciting and hardit challenges the best of our minds. Space exploration encourages young peopleto study the hard subjects, like engineering, math, and the sciences, that arecritical to future economies. In America only 5% of our college graduates areengineers. That number is dropping. The Chinese graduated 45% of theirstudents as engineers. In China the number of engineering graduates isincreasing. Apollo spurred tens of thousands of students to pursueengineering. These engineers had an enormous impact on the American economy. To keep up with evolving world economies America needs to do this again.

The Moon and asteroids mayhold part of the key to addressing global warming and developing sustainable energyresources. Platinum group metals (abundant in asteroids) may be found on themoon at impact sites of metallic asteroids. Development of these resources mayenable the world to establish a hydrogen economy, since there may not be enoughplatinum group metals on Earth to produce the fuel cells for all the world'scars.

Lunar Helium-3 may enable asafe form of fusion power that could be used around the world without the riskof contributing to weapons enrichment. Helium-3 fusion does not produce theradioactive byproducts to enable weapons development. You could give Helium-3reactors to North Korea and Iran and sleep like babies over the deal.

The members of the NationalSpace Society believe the United States has become too risk averse. John AugustusShedd wrote, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are builtfor." There are two roads before America: one, full of excessivecaution and introspection, leads to diminishment and decline. The other,guided by visionary consideration of risk and reward, leads to a renewed senseof purpose and continued world leadership.

Space exploration anddevelopment activities are worth the risk. It is time for the nations of Earthto embrace calculated risk, risk for a purpose, risk that makes our souls sing. This mission of Discovery was a stepping stone toward our future in space. Nowthat she is back home and NASA back on track, let us be thankful for the bravewho dare to be great. Dr. Griffin made the right call.

  • Gallery: Shuttle's First Flight
  • Gallery: Rare Space Shuttle Images
  • Shuttle Discovery: Complete Mission Coverage
  • Great Space Quizzes: Space Shuttle Countdown
  • Great Space Quizzes: The Space Shuttle
  • Great Space Quizzes: Life in Orbit

George Whitesides is the Executive Director of the National Space Society.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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