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Time to rethink manned missions

A Times Editorial
Published July 29, 2005

This wasn't how the shuttle was supposed to return to space, with a launch marred by debris, damage under the orbiter and an anxious public awaiting the astronauts' safe return. Yet, in a chilling repeat of the debris problem that doomed the shuttle Columbia, a plank-sized piece of foam insulation broke away from Discovery's external fuel tank Tuesday during liftoff. NASA said Discovery appears to have escaped serious damage. We can only hope so. The nation needs to rethink flying manned missions - at least in the near future.

Cameras and the crew on the international space station, where the shuttle is docked, are inspecting Discovery's damage; a clear picture is expected by the weekend. Officials said early indications are that the foam missed hitting the orbiter, while a 11/2-inch piece of thermal tile missing near a landing gear door did not look serious enough to require in-flight repairs.

There is time after the shuttle lands as scheduled Aug. 7 to examine why $1-billion in repairs and a two-year stand-down after the Columbia disaster failed to eliminate the threat of falling debris to the shuttle. NASA was right to acknowledge the problem and its concern for Discovery early on, but it is too soon to assume the agency has overhauled its working culture and put safety first. As NASA administrator Michael Griffin told NBC's Today show Thursday, the agency "will never be able" to reduce the shedded debris to zero.

Americans have never deluded themselves about the inhospitable environment of space. But what they want - more now, after two shuttle disasters and this latest scare - is a mission for manned exploration that at least compensates for the danger of human travel. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet Wednesday to address the problem of debris - the right move, but hardly proactive. NASA classified Discovery's trip, after all, as a "test flight," as if it makes sense to be working the bugs out of a 30-year-old spacecraft. Even retiring the shuttle by 2010 does nothing for safety now. Let NASA bring Discovery home. Before it flies again, let the nation consider more fully the value of manned flight and the risks.

[Last modified July 29, 2005, 00:51:17]

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