Shuttle’s missions poorly defined

Shuttle's missions poorly defined by the Plain Talk The lead paragraph to this commentary had to be edited before the Plain Talk went to press this week.

As of Wednesday, before this week�s publication, the space shuttle Discovery was supposed to be in orbit, marking the return of our country�s government-backed manned space program.

Technical problems, however, cropped up. The vehicle is still sitting on the launch pad.

There had understandably been a great deal of anticipation during the countdown to the planned blast off. NASA�s space program has been grounded since February 2003 after the space shuttle Colombia burned up in the atmosphere, killing all aboard and raining debris over much of Texas.

There has also been much talk of all of the improvements made to the spacecraft, of how NASA is determined to change its bureaucratic culture and not repeat the mistakes that have led to the loss of not one, but two shuttles.

What no one seems to be talking about is this: if we didn�t have an international space station currently in orbit (and in need of the shuttle�s regular delivery services) would we be attempting to get Discovery into space?

In fact, isn�t now the time to mothball the shuttles, which are scheduled to be put out of service five years down the road, before more astronauts are lost?

If money is no object, as it usually isn�t in space launches, we can pay more for reusable shuttles than for throw-away rockets if we have to. But the question never answered is � what will the shuttle do that rockets couldn�t do?

It can�t launch more than they can; sometimes, it can�t launch as much. A Saturn V rocket can carry up to 250,000 pounds; the shuttle struggles to break into orbit with a maximum payload of 65,000 pounds. The shuttle can�t bring back satellites. It can�t can�t keep a space station aloft even a fraction as long as Skylab stayed up there. It has no scientific value. It just has men and women in the front seats ? and an enormous amount of weight and equipment devoted to bringing them, and an empty cargo bay, back in one piece.

There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle cannot. A rocket can be permitted to fail.

We�ve all seen the films of NASA�s early, unmanned launches, where rockets often shuddered and tipped over before they even left the pad.

One of the old throw-away jobs could go haywire, and spiral down into the ocean off the Bahamas, and everybody would feel miserable and millions would be wasted and everybody would go back to work.

The engineers would, naturally, be disappointed that the vehicle was lost, but they never expected it to come back. The prospect makes the old rockets seem kind of nice.

The pending return of shuttle flights has stirred up talk about the long-term future of our nation�s space program. President Bush wants the nation to devote resources, technology and lives to establish a base on the moon, and, in the near future, deliver astronauts to Mars.

Both are incredibly daunting tasks. We at least know we can land on the moon. But it will take literally dozens of trips (in a space vehicle that hasn�t even been designed yet) to deliver men, women and equipment to establish a base there.

And the Mars trip � let�s see. It�s a journey of several months, not several days. Somehow, a crew of astronauts will need to carry enough food and water and other supplies to make it there and back.

Unlike the lunar missions, the landing vehicle will need to be able to land and take off again in an environment with an atmosphere and stronger gravity than the moon. It will need to stand up to harsh weather, radiation and other hazards.

And, frankly, we find it difficult to imagine how the astronauts will have the strength to explore the planet after such a long time in a weightless environment.

It�s time to do some number crunching here; to make a serious cost/benefit analysis of our manned space program. In light of the fact that we have currently two highly sophisticated robots wandering around on the surface of Mars, gathering data for a much longer time than any human crew could, it�s easy to conclude that machines, not man, can more efficiently explore outer space.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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