As we await the launch of Discovery, I can’t help but wonder: what is the point of the shuttle program?
Does it contribute anything, really, to space exploration? To scientific discovery? It’s an orbiter. Big deal. It goes up, around, and down. It doesn’t actually go anywhere other than a boondoggle of a space station that will likely never be finished and never serve any useful purpose.
The shuttles themselves are old and decrepit, and it seems like a huge waste of money to keep retrofitting and repairing them. Here’s a case in point:
A temporary window cover fell off the shuttle and damaged thermal tiles near the tail Tuesday afternoon. The problem was announced just two hours after NASA declared Discovery ready to return the nation to space for the first time since the Columbia disaster.
The mishap was an eerie reminder of the very thing that doomed Columbia — damage to the spaceship’s fragile thermal shield.
… The plastic cover on one of Discovery’s cockpit windows came loose Tuesday while the spaceship was on the launch pad, falling more than 60 feet and striking a bulge in the fuselage, said Stephanie Stilson, the NASA manager in charge of Discovery’s launch preparations.
No one knows why the cover — held in place with tape and weighing less than 2 pounds — fell off, she said. The covers are used to protect the windows while the shuttle is on the launch pad, then removed before liftoff.
Two tiles on an aluminum panel were damaged, and the entire panel was replaced with a spare. Stilson called it a minor repair job.
NASA’s missions to Mars and deep space probes like “Deep Impact” are far more useful — and less expensive — than this 1970s throwback we keep throwing into orbit. It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad. Retire the shuttle, abandon the “international” space station (where are all those other countries?) and start planning for new and truly useful space exploration missions. We should have a settlement on Mars by now, shouldn’t we?