Space Shuttle Discovery Launches After Delays
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GWEN IFILL: Amid some nervousness and delay, the space shuttle program returned to orbit this Independence Day. Discovery’s liftoff this afternoon was the first shuttle launch in a year.
For a closer look at today’s launch and the decision-making process leading up to it, I’m joined by John Logsdon. He’s the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He also served on the accident investigation board which examined the Columbia tragedy in 2003.
JOHN LOGSDON, Director, George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute: Good evening.
GWEN IFILL: So, was the right decision made today to go ahead with this launch?
JOHN LOGSDON: I think so. I think it was a tough decision to make, because the safety officer and the chief engineer of NASA would have liked more time to do some more fixes on the external tank.
Thirteen other senior people said it was time to fly. And NASA Administrator Mike Griffin agreed with that majority, and said, let’s go.
GWEN IFILL: You’re alluding to the fact it was about 10 days ago when these two senior NASA officials said, “I don’t know if we’re ready yet.” And Mike Griffin basically overruled them.
JOHN LOGSDON: He overruled them. But, if he had not, if he had gone with them, he would have overruled 13 other people. So, ultimately, it was Mike’s decision that — that the benefits of going now outweighed the risks.
The shuttle is a risky vehicle. There are always going to be risks.
The risk of foam damage
GWEN IFILL: Well, I want to talk about that, but one -- one -- one little risk which we paid a lot of attention to in the last 48 hours was this little piece of -- five-inch piece of foam that someone said looked like a bread crust and weighed less than a penny.
JOHN LOGSDON: Right.
GWEN IFILL: How serious was that?
JOHN LOGSDON: Not very serious at all.
I mean, the piece of foam that doomed Columbia was 1.7 pounds. And, as you just said, this had about the weight of a penny. If -- if it had come off in flight and struck the orbiter, it -- it probably -- not probably -- certainly would not have done any serious damage.
GWEN IFILL: So, we have been paying attention -- when you say this is a risky flight, are you saying we have been paying attention, in some ways, to the wrong risks?
JOHN LOGSDON: No.
I think, particularly since Columbia, there's maybe been an overemphasis on foam, because foam is what doomed Columbia. But the shuttle is risky across the board and -- and needs constant vigilance and care to be flown successfully.
GWEN IFILL: Had we gotten before, or prior to Columbia, kind of blase about the fact that shuttles start -- seemed to take off and land without any major problems?
JOHN LOGSDON: I think there -- there was kind of a relaxation, that shuttle flights had become too routine, and -- and NASA had lost, perhaps, a little bit of that laser-like vigilance in -- in looking at all the risks.
GWEN IFILL: People say that generals like to fight the last war. And I wonder sometimes whether the preoccupation with the mistakes from last time, which was the foam falling off, hitting the heat -- heat shield, and causing Columbia to fail upon reentry, whether that is now what everybody focuses on, and there's something else that maybe they're ignoring.
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, I think -- I don't think they're ignoring anything.
The -- the -- the current management of the shuttle and -- and -- and NASA overall are really first-rate technical people. They're sensitized by the Columbia accident to the comprehensive kind of risk assessment that's necessary to fly this vehicle safely.
GWEN IFILL: And you're convinced that the recommendations that you made after investigating the causes for the Columbia accident have been addressed?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, they were recommendations. They weren't requirements. And I think NASA has -- has fulfilled most of them, some to the letter, some to the spirit.
So, I think it's a much safer organization now than it was February 1, 2003.
The future of space flight
GWEN IFILL: We said in the news summary that the purpose for this mission was to go to the International Space Station. What is happening with that project?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, really, this was the second return-to-flight test mission to test out all the changes that have been put in after Columbia.
It incidentally goes to the station. It's bringing up some supplies and some equipment. But it's really the second of two that will open the door to the shuttle getting back to its job for the rest of its lifetime, which is assembling the space station.
GWEN IFILL: When you say the rest of its lifetime, what do you mean?
JOHN LOGSDON: There's a firm decision made by the White House to shut the shuttle program down in 2010. So, there are somewhere between 15 and 17 more flights left after this one. And then the shuttle will be gracefully retired to a museum, and we will get on with the next system.
GWEN IFILL: If 2010 is the target date for the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, what is that -- what -- what stakes ride on the successful completion of a mission like the one took off today?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, this is the one that opens the door to the next ones. If -- if there were major problems -- and, remember, we're just a few hours off of liftoff. There's 13 more days.
Hopefully, nothing will go wrong. And -- and after the Discovery returns successfully, another mission scheduled the end of August. We're going to start flying much more regularly than once a year. And, so, the stakes are finishing this multibillion-dollar laboratory in space, the International Space Station, then getting started with the -- the process of returning to the moon, and eventually sending people to Mars.
GWEN IFILL: We have heard that, at some point -- we forget that there was another Discovery launch a year ago between Columbia and this. But -- and more foam fell off of that launch. And there was some concern.
Was that concern addressed? Did they then go back in and start from scratch on this whole issue of foam insulation, or were other problems addressed?
A new and improved shuttle
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, the whole wide range of shuttle problems were addressed. But NASA had done a partial redesign of the external tank, which is where this foam comes from. They took off something called the PAL ramp. And I don't think we want to go into acronyms here.
And -- and that exposed something else called ice frost ramps. And that's what was worrying the safety officer. And -- and those will be redesigned. This current tank design will only be flown for two more missions. And, then, yet another improved tank will be ready for the first mission in 2007.
GWEN IFILL: If this is a successful mission, and what we see coming up next is successful, what happens after the shuttle program ends in 2010? Is that plan already on the -- on the -- on the drawing board?
JOHN LOGSDON: Oh, yes.
There is the so-called Vision for Space Exploration that calls for a return to the moon around 2018. We're beginning to build the -- the rockets and -- and the new spacecraft to carry people into space. The contract for that spacecraft will be let probably in September. So, we're well on our way out once again beyond Earth orbit.
GWEN IFILL: John Logsdon, thanks a lot.
JOHN LOGSDON: Thank you.