Phew!

August 10, 2005

PLEASURE AND RELIEF at Commander Eileen Collins' sleek glide into Edwards Air Force Base yesterday failed to blunt the sense that Discovery's return to Earth was bittersweet. The past 14 nail-biting days may have been witness to the troubled spacecraft's last flight.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded until NASA scientists can figure out how to prevent foam insulation on the fuel tank from breaking off during launch and damaging the orbiter. They've already spent 2 1/2 years and $1.5 billion on it, so the task isn't easy.

Further clouding the shuttle's future are critics who complain it's too old, too risky, too expensive, too bereft of a compelling mission to be worthy of gobbling up nearly half the space agency's annual budget.

Our hope is that the repair work can move quickly enough to keep such naysayers at bay. The shuttle has at least two vital jobs to do before it is retired.

Top priority is repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, which needs a team of astronauts to fix its failing batteries and gyroscopes and keep Hubble beaming back to Earth the extraordinary pictures and information about the universe that has far exceeded its creators' wildest expectations.

Without that shuttle repair, Hubble will run out of power and go dark by 2008. A replacement telescope is not scheduled to be launched until 2015.

Another mission remaining for the shuttle is providing access to the space station, a cooperative international venture that is half-complete. NASA's shuttle is the only space vehicle large enough to carry construction cargo to the orbiting station.

Critics dismiss both the space station and the shuttle as failing to deliver the expected bang of enormous scientific achievement for the many bucks they cost.

But experimentation and exploration can't be expected to move steadily forward at a predictable pace. There's apt to be plenty of trial and error, and occasional dead ends.

What's more, the United States has obligations to its international partners who can't be just blown off without a dear price to be paid in the future.

Perhaps the most ominous result of the disasters that destroyed two shuttles in mid-flight is an overabundance of caution that now threatens to undermine NASA's confidence. If Discovery's supplies hadn't been running low, just imagine how much longer its landing would have been postponed in hopes of 100 percent perfect weather conditions.

But NASA can't eliminate every possible risk to its manned spaceflight program, and Americans shouldn't expect it to.

The shuttle's problems have helped reframe the big questions and the small questions about the direction and mode of future exploration. The country should look forward to a vigorous debate. But by the same token, in the here and now, it would be unfortunate to see NASA prematurely yank the shuttle out of operation if reasonable fixes are still possible.

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