The initial euphoria that accompanied the return to space of U.S. astronauts July 26 was tempered with the news early into the flight that cameras had captured a disturbing image as Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A piece of insulating foam, the same kind of debris that doomed the Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003, had come loose from the external fuel tank. Though the 1-foot piece of foam did not appear to strike the shuttle, there was obvious cause for concern.
Once in space, the astronauts inside the shuttle delicately maneuvered a 100-foot movable crane, a new feature tipped with lasers and a camera, to inspect the shuttle's wings and nose for damage.
Then Commander Eileen Collins expertly performed an unprecedented backflip of the spacecraft, turning it upside down near the international space station, whose two residents photographed its underside for possible damage.
There was no apparent damage from the loose foam, but concern increased when the visual inspection of the shuttle showed that two pieces of packing cloth had come loose from between the heat-absorbing tiles on the craft's underbelly.
Change of plans
Suddenly, a space walk that had previously been seen as only an exercise in preparedness became an absolute necessity.
Spacewalkers Soichi Noguchi and Stephen Robinson used an oversized caulk gun and a putty knife to apply an experimental goo to shuttle heat shield samples. NASA hopes the material can be used in future missions to repair damage if it should occur during liftoff.
Then Robinson made the first in-orbit repair of a shuttle. The bothersome loose insulation material was removed while anxious colleagues, concerned family members and a television audience of millions watched.
The shuttle crew went on to complete the rest of its mission, which included restocking the international space station and hauling away 6,300 pounds of trash and junked equipment.
After a one-day delay caused by bad weather in Florida, the Discovery made a picture perfect landing in California.
Afterward, Commander Collins said the U.S. should continue launching shuttles until the scheduled completion of the international space station in 2010 -- a sentiment echoed by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
We agree, assuming, of course, that NASA completes a careful review of what caused the piece of insulation to separate from the fuel tank.
The shuttle program has a proud history, marked by the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, but proud nonetheless. It should not die grounded.
A new generation of spacecraft is already being developed, but the first flight is still at least five years off. That's too long for Americans to stay earthbound.