America held its breath Tuesday morning. Twice, it had seen what could happen when 4.5 million pounds is hurled skyward by 7.4 million pounds of thrust to achieve an orbit of the earth and then shed that energy for a safe, passenger-jet speed landing.
Twice it had grieved. The Challenger lift off explosion in 1986 and the Columbia re-entry disaster of 2003 had taken 14 lives of men and women who had placed them in the hands of technology only to learn its implacable cruelty. Would the shuttle Discovery somehow redeem that trust?
The on-time lift-off looked flawless. The solid rockets spewed their white effluent on which the vehicle climbed, its own three hydrogen-oxygen engines burning with the power of two dozen Hoover dams. It worked. Except, what was that? Wasn't something hurtling off the big orange tank that held the hydrogen-oxygen mix? Were they chunks of something, like the foam insulation that had impacted the Columbia wing's leading edge, dooming it at re-entry? Whatever they were, caught by the external camera, they appeared to have missed the shuttle itself in their downward descent. And the craft flew on to orbit. There will be time to investigate this event, actually time for the on-board crew to have a look at the externals of their craft by use of the shuttle's extended arm. Even time to make repairs, should such be indicated.
Later in the day, mission officials were referring to a "couple of debris events." One involves a small piece of tile seen flying off the nose-gear door of the orbiter itself, a sheaf no larger than a playing card, significance unknown. At about the same time, at separation of the spent solid rockets, a larger chunk of something was seen flying from the external tank itself and descending down past the shuttle's wing. NASA's mission operations man John Shannon says a similar piece may have flown off the other side of the tank. He added a third camera view showing an apparent bird strike at the nose cone of the big orange tank early in liftoff. The significance of these "debris events" may not be known until imaging teams have studied all the considerable data collected during the boost phase of the flight. It could take as long as six days. Now, dozens of missions after the first, NASA is at last bent on finding out what happens when the entire mass leaves the earth, sheds expended appendages, and reaches orbit.
At launch, NASA's Administrator had said, "Everything we know about has been covered." The caveat of course is self-contained. It is what we don't know about that can harm. Or, worse yet, what we know about and accept. When the final tally is made and the last shuttle is garaged it may be decided that there was always too much to go wrong. Getting all those myriad parts to function to the tune of nine-9's reliability may have been too much mathematically to ask. Part of the problem lies in design. The Defense Department contributed dollars to the shuttle program and therefore had a part in its concept. It turned out to be not only a manned space vehicle, but also a transport. In future these roles will be carried out by separate vehicles. As it is, the Discovery is hauling tons of equipment to the International Space Station and is to return more tons of used and unneeded material. In fact, the haul-back rivals the delivery.
No engineer would suggest that the catastrophic loss of two of five orbiters is an acceptable percentage. It is the learning curve of a teenage driver. But it is done.
But see what else has been done. In a world where headlines are made by fanatic cowards whose aim is random death, seven brave men and women strapped themselves into a cockpit measuring some 25 cubic feet, waited two hours for a clock to finally reach zero and, weighing three times their normal earth weight, allowed themselves to be projected beyond the realm of homo sapiens at more than 17,000 miles an hour.
O brave new world! (borrowed). Hardly noted but worth a mention is the fact that the Commander of this mission is named Eileen. And among those she commands is a Wendy.
A first-day goodnight message from the crew took note of the preceding doomed flight of Columbia. Cdr. Eileen Collins mentioned each of the seven crew members by first name and said, "We miss them and we are continuing their mission."
The contrast between the Discovery event and those other craven acts delineates itself. Will we press on, or be drawn back into shadow? The mere posing of the question answers it. The bravery of this shuttle crew and those who flew before insists on it.
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