Space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth last week after holding tensely for a couple of days while the crew checked over the shuttle for possible damage. The cause of the delay was debris from the space shuttle, debris that might have been part of the space shuttle’s heat-shield, which is essential for Atlantis to return to Earth safely.
NASA claimed it probably was a plastic separator from the heat shield and therefore not essential for a landing. While the current crisis has passed, this experience brings further doubt upon an organization that already has had more than its share of problems.
In fact, NASA has had more than a few problems and very few successes in recent memory. Since the loss of Columbia in February 2003, there have been three space flights by NASA, and each has been delayed by issues that should have been fixed before the space shuttles were deemed spaceworthy.
The question these failures raise is whether NASA is on the right track. Many argue the $16 billion NASA receives every year could be better put to current events that demand our attention, from poverty at home to crises abroad.
Furthermore, it seems foolhardy to expose our nation’s brightest and best to a situation where their safety is not guaranteed. The space shuttles, judging by the delays in launch and postmission analyses, are minimally safer than they were, even after numerous studies and recommendations. The foam that caused the Columbia to disintegrate upon re-entry are still being used and a big piece fell off of the first “Return to Space” mission, with space shuttle Discovery on July 26, 2005.
And now, with commercial ventures starting to take up the mantle of space exploration, NASA needs to seriously reconsider its mission for the future. While many fondly remember the NASA missions to the moon, the current state of NASA is no longer the image of an organization that is prepared to go to the stars. When the public does not know or care about the missions and the missions themselves are uninteresting, it seems that NASA should re-examine its priorities before it loses the imaginations of a new generation.
This column originally was published in the Daily Targum at Rutgers University. Please send comments to [email protected]