Discovery's blastoff gets U.S. back on course
The near flawless liftoff of space shuttle Discovery on Tuesday signaled a critical turning point in America's five-decade-long mission to explore outer space.
For the past 21/2 years, space flight had been on hold in this country as officials investigated problems that led to the shuttle Columbia disintegration that cost its crew members their lives. Officials pinpointed problems, worked to correct them, and tested and retested some 50 design changes at a cost of $1.5 billion.
Those efforts culminated with Tuesday's blastoff, thrusting the United States back on course toward reaching important short- and long-term national goals.
In the short term, Discovery's crew will work as human guinea pigs to ensure key design changes in shuttle spacecraft maximize safety. Specifically, the astronauts will use new repair kits on deliberately broken samples of thermal tiles and panels, source of the February 2003 tragedy.
Return to space station
Discovery also carries immediate significance in its work to restock the international space station and thereby reinvigorate that mission as well. The shuttle is poised to dock with the station today and deliver an almost three-year back order of supplies and replacement parts to the half-built station and its two residents.
Construction of the station has been on hold since the last shuttle visit in late 2002. With help from Discovery, the space station now can be completed.
The station will be a critical cog in learning about the effects of long-term space travel on humans and as a source of research for manned flights to the Red Planet.
Venturing to Mars and returning to the moon were among the strategic goals President Bush enunciated in his 2004 State of the Union address. Judging by the rapt interest in Tuesday's 114th shuttle liftoff, Discovery has sparked renewed zeal in the space program and its future. Today and through the remaining days of this mission, that momentum is likely to build.
While staying optimistic about the initial success of Discovery and while recognizing the multi-faceted value of the 12-day mission, Americans must also remain realistic. They should follow NASA's lead and wait for a successful touchdown Aug. 7 before celebrating full throttle. This mission -- like all manned space flights over the past 46 years -- carries inherent elements of risk to the lives of its seven crew members.
Remembering Columbia victims
We, too, must not forget the lives of the astronauts killed in the February 2003 tragedy. Their deaths forced critical introspection by NASA that should produce a stronger, safer American space program.
Family members of the Columbia victims understandably are monitoring this week's mission closely and issued a statement about it. We share their sentiments:
"We grieve deeply but know the exploration of space must go on. We hope we have learned and will continue to learn from each of these accidents so that we will be as safe as we can be in this high-risk endeavor ...