Shuttle woes will not dim mankind's space quest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2005, 12:00am

The fate of the space shuttle astronauts, who face a tense return to Earth after making unprecedented repairs to their ship, has captivated the world this week. Even before the problems were discovered, there was great interest in the mission. This follows a trend that was, in part, triggered by China's first manned flight almost two years ago. Mankind's fascination with space travel has been rekindled.

A new space race seemed to have begun, with the idea of sending men - or women - to the moon for the first time since 1972 back on the agenda. US President George W.Bush dared to dream of launching a manned mission to Mars.

Now, we have been given a fresh, sobering reminder of the unpredictable and dangerous nature of space travel. The emergency repairs carried out by the crew of the space shuttle Discovery were to a seemingly minor problem. But it was one that could have caused disastrous overheating during its dramatic return to Earth's atmosphere on Monday.

It is hoped astronaut Steve Robinson was right when he said it looked like 'the patient is cured' - and he and his six fellow crewmembers will return home safely. But for the future of space travel, and the safety of the men and women who will be sent on ever-more dangerous missions, that will not be the end of the affair.

The inevitable inquiry must not only focus on how such a small thing - the movement of ceramic fibre filler between surface tiles on the shuttle - could have been allowed to imperil the mission. It must also get to the bottom of what is wrong with the management and safety culture at Nasa, which has now rightly grounded the shuttle programme.

The United States has already lost two previous shuttles and their crews in explosions - the Columbia in 2003 and Challenger nearly 20 years ago. Nasa administrator Wayne Hale conceded this week that the Columbia accident 'made us realise we had been playing Russian roulette with shuttle crews', yet they still 'goofed' - his word - on key safety checks before Discovery's launch last week.

The loss of Columbia put the shuttle programme on hold for 21/2 years and dented enthusiasm for exploring the mysteries of the universe.

The latest shuttle setback is unlikely to quench imaginations inspired anew by missions such as the one by a US co-ordinated probe, which sent back stunning images of the Martian landscape. Private enterprise is also getting involved. Richard Branson - founder of the Virgin brand - has even pledged to launch space tourism flights within three years.

But the problems encountered by the shuttle have highlighted the risks. Future success in space is likely to depend on a co-operative international effort, not a race. The space shuttle programme may be grounded - perhaps never to resume. But the quest to expand mankind's knowledge of the universe will go on.