I've got a lot of personal things on my mind these days, but the latest on space shuttle Discovery (STS-114) galls me enough to take the time to comment.
Discovery remains in good shape. In a press conference Sunday afternoon, mission manager Wayne Hale said, “There are no new anomalies to speak of.”
Inspections of the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that protect the wing leading edges and nose cap appear to show no serious threat to a safe return to Earth. Engineers and mission managers continue to look at two gap fillers, extending from the Shuttle’s underside. The ceramic coated-fabric gap fillers are used to protect against hot gas from seeping into gaps between the Shuttle’s protective tiles. (viewed July 31, 11:00pm)
Meanwhile journalists are too lazy or thick to do more than repeat the official line:
Managers at Nasa have decided that Colonel Eileen Collins and her team of six astronauts will remain in orbit for one day longer than planned, to assist their two colleagues aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with some chores.
A likely story: nothing wrong with the shuttle, but we need you highly trained specialists up there to change light bulbs....
In actuality "no new anomalies" is just officialese for "situation normal: all f***d up."
In grounding the shuttle, NASA is edging toward what it should have done a long time ago: the shuttle should be permanently retired. What's the point of the space shuttle? To ferry building materials and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). What's the point of the ISS? To give a plausible reason for keeping the shuttle around.1 A nice, clean exercise in circular reasoning.
In grad school an eminent astrophysicist (long since departed to another institution) let me in on a trade secret: NASA will cut the funding of any scientist who publicly mentions that there is no scientific justification for the shuttle.
The reusuability of the vehicle's parts give us the idea that it's not as costly as disposable spacecraft. What the shuttle does right, such as launching satellites like Hubble and Chandra, could be done much more cost-effectively with an unmanned launch vehicle. Each shuttle launch costs over a quarter billion dollars. Sending humans into space is a costly enterprise. (Think about it: a human-friendly environment is very heavy. It also requires running safety checks on every piece of equipment sent along, so, for example, a spring doesn't pop off and kill someone.) Compare the shuttle's astronomical price-tag to something on order $10 million for an unmanned launch. And then NASA has the audacity to claim that doing science on the thing saves money! (Sure, over not doing science on the thing.)
As I discussed in a previous post, the motivation behind the space shuttle is to spread public largesse to influential tech companies. (Nothing's so easy as spending someone else's money, is it?)
With the Apollo program, we went to the Moon! With the space shuttle, we simply go around in circles... until we run out of orbiters... or astronauts.
Nothing useful comes out of the shuttle program that couldn't be done more effectively in other ways.
Bottom line: the space shuttle program is a highly-tech way to kill astronauts.
1. Supposedly we need the ISS as a stop-over on our way back to the Moon en route to Mars. We're suppoed to believe that since the Apollo program our level of technology has regressed so we can't go directly to the Moon.