Dragging Discovery down to Earth
Space missions should be about more than returning in one piece.
It was impossible to watch the Discovery’s landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California yesterday without a lump in the throat. Ever since the shuttle Columbia broke up two-and-a-half years ago, a shadow has hung over the space programme. A Columbia post-mortem accused NASA of a culture of avoidance, and NASA responded with a number of measures to increase the safety of its risky shuttle flights.
The Discovery’s recent mission was seen as make or break. Another tragedy would mean the end of space exploration in the near future. Yet even before the mission had a chance to prove itself, NASA decided to ground the entire shuttle fleet. A piece of insulation foam had broken off from the external rocket, large enough to cause damage similar to what brought down Columbia. The foam missed Discovery, but was enough to scare wary NASA officials into a defensive all-stop.
In such a precautionary environment, the Discovery’s only mission seemed to be to return in one piece. All the news attention over the past few weeks focused on fillers, spacers, protrusions, and tears. After the foam incident, two protruding spacers on Discovery’s underbelly worried NASA officials enough to order a spacewalk to fix them. Then a tear in insulation fabric near the pilot’s window triggered more fretting, though ultimately no spacewalk. Even the landing in California – ordered after bad weather made landing in Florida too risky – was turned into a problem. One paper reflected a general mood when it reported ‘the delayed landing was the latest in a series of minor glitches’ (1).
Once survival was made the standard of success, the nitty-gritty activities of risk-prevention were turned into major accomplishments. NASA reported that it had reduced dings and nicks to the shuttle by one sixth. Another widely reported milestone was the first ever spacewalk to repair the shuttle. Yet another was the first ever removal of a protruding spacer. A spacewalk to test the application of a kind of cement to fix damaged tiles also made news. The fact that the Discovery returned without blowing up was seen as the culminating achievement of a nerve-wracking trip.
NASA’s emphasis on how it had improved safety was no doubt understandable, given that it has been besieged by naysayers. But it was hard not to see the entire mission as one giant lowering of expectations. The focus on the various things that might go wrong, and what NASA was or was not doing to fix them, meant that Discovery’s actual mission was hardly covered. A few spectacular images of the shuttle flipped upside down, or of astronauts hugging each other on the International Space Station, were crowded out by tense anticipations of what new problem would show itself.
In fact, much media coverage included at most one or two sentences on the various tasks the Discovery performed. In part this was because much of Discovery’s mission was routine maintenance and replenishing activities related to the space station. But you had to go to the NASA website to gather any serious details on what these activities were, what science was involved, and what was novel.
Space travel has always been fraught with danger. What has made its riskiness tolerable and even exciting is that the trip was never just about making it back. Of all human endeavours, space exploration is the least justifiable, if survival is our standard of success. Space exploration can only animate if it can show the impossible to be possible.
Put another way, space travel is a lens into what kinds of risks we think are worth taking. What we expect from the space programme is a measure of what we expect of humanity when pressed to its limits. Demanding an accident-free shuttle flight reflects a limited view of human potential. It is also self-defeating because it cannot inspire.
In that sense, Discovery’s landing was not a success because it could never succeed. NASA believes it can restore public trust and excitement in the space programme through a mission without glitches. But it is facing a more severe crisis of expectations that it has, wittingly or unwittingly, accepted by making safety its first priority. Grounding the shuttle fleet until it has figured out how to make shuttle flights yet safer mistakes a fundamentally political problem for a technical one. The doubts about space travel cannot be solved by science alone.
The strangest twist of the past few years is that the same organisation that ‘won’ the space race against the Soviet Union has now defeated itself with its own doubts. If the grounding of the shuttle lasts long enough, NASA may have to rely on aging Russian spacecraft to service the space station and to supply the astronauts currently abandoned in space. The only solution to this bitter irony is for NASA to come up with something more exciting for astronauts to do than come back alive.
Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.
(1) With Edwards Landing, Discovery Returns to Earth, LA Times, 9 August