Despite all the media frenzy about the risks to the crew, Discovery successfully made orbit Tuesday and docked with the International Space Station this morning. So far the mission of STS-121 is so routine as to be boring. And that’s good.
The big issue in media reports centered around the foam insulation surrounding the external fuel tank – the rusty-red cylinder carrying the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen “fuel” for the shuttle’s main engines. The insulation is necessary to keep the liquified gases cold.
It also has a tendency to fall off during launch. A large chunk of insulation hit the Shuttle Columbia on takeoff, damaging its protective, heat resistant tiles. The Columbia disintegrated on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, as a result of the damage. Atmospheric friction burned holes through the metal skin of the spaceplane, killing all on board.
NASA officials, not known for their eloquence, reported that inspection of Discovery‘s external fuel tank had revealed some fracturing or loosening of the foam insulation, but that the faults would not endanger the mission.
They said nothing about endangering the crew, although it is probably what they meant. The media nearly went ape-shit, claiming NASA officials were more worried about making a return to space after a three-year hiatus than about ensuring the lives of the seven-person crew.
Engineers and military types, in my experience, tend to focus on missions in an overly abstract sense, seemingly distancing themselves from the obvious truth that human lives are involved. Space exploration, after all, is a voluntary occupation. Astronauts choose their profession, knowing the risks involved. Their support crews also understand the risks, and of course value the astronauts’ lives. They just seem to have difficulty expressing that concern during media briefings.
As far as anyone can tell at this point, NASA called it right, as there seems to be no damage to the ship’s tiles. This shuttle landing will be as smooth as all the 113 previous ones, with the sole exception of Columbia and Challenger, which exploded soon after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986. While one might want better odds, considering the parameters of these flights, the odds are still in the astronauts’ favor.
Risk is unavoidable in spaceflight. If we eliminated all risks, we would never have crossed oceans, flown in rickety planes, and sent men to the moon.
Bon voyage, Discovery, et bonne chance!