STS-121 – risks worth the goals

by Chris Bergin

While the mass media continue to fall over themselves with talk of doom and gloom over the status of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the crew of STS-121 – the next Shuttle mission – once again countered by noting they are always aware of the risks, and they are worth it.

Discovery is once again tasked with kick-started regular Shuttle launches with what is being labelled as Return to Flight 3, taking over her younger sister Atlantis due to the delay of the launch date to next Spring.

Risk is something the crew of STS-121 are more than prepared for, moving from their previous standby mission of STS-300 in support of STS-114. Commander Steve Lindsey and a crew of three other astronauts waited for the stand-down during STS-114, with the possibility of launching on Atlantis in a rescue mission should Discovery had been unfit to return to Earth – a requirement installed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

“I slept in my office during the first few days of STS-114’s mission,” said Lindsey, “but we were ready to go if required.”

Since Discovery’s safe homecoming, Lindsey has seen the continuing issue of foam liberation from the External Tank become the focus of a media frenzy, not helped by NASA’s nervous leaks and comments relating to the lack of a solution – despite Michoud engineers clearly stating solutions have been given, with work only delayed by the interruption in the facilities work by Hurricane Katrina.

One thing Lindsey is sure of is that risk comes hand in hand with space flight – and that the risks are more than worth taking as they continue to learn about launching into space.

“The reason we’re willing to take the risk is because the goal, exploration, is something we think is an inherent part of us,” he added. “It’s an important thing to do.

“What we learn from space flight far, far exceeds the risks, in my opinion, so it’s worth doing. That’s why we’re willing to take those kind of risks. That’s why I’m willing to take those kind of risks, because I believe in the cause.

“If I didn’t believe in the cause, I wouldn’t be taking the risks.”

Pilot Mark Kelly went one stage further, placing the Space Shuttle into context by noting it’s more risky than flying a fighter jet in combat.

“After the loss of Columbia a couple of years ago, I think we were reminded of the risk,” Kelly said. “All of us, though, have always known that the Space Shuttle is a very risky vehicle, much more risky than even flying airplanes in combat. It’s something we understand and we accept.

“Personally the way I can accept that risk is, I look at the benefit. Having the benefit to our society, not only here in the United States but throughout the world with the amount of invention you get from having a space program, is well worth the risk that an individual like myself has to take by flying in the vehicle.”

Discovery’s mission has the un-sexy title of being called ‘Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1’ – but following the mini-grounding of the fleet until next year, Lindsey is aware that the eyes of the world will be on his flight, as they were with STS-114. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be treating it any different to his previous missions.

“The day I bring the Shuttle back and the crew brings the Shuttle back, we won’t be thinking anything different than we did on any other entry I’ve ever been on,” he added. “Just like in ascent and any other phase of flight, the best way that I can keep us safe is to do our job the best way we know how.

“So, our focus will be totally on doing the job exactly as we’re supposed to do it, trapping our errors and mistakes and make sure we minimize those, doing all the things necessary to be prepared to come in and land, being well rested, and accomplishing all those things for the landing.

“During the entry as well as during the ascent, our focus is on doing the job and not possible outcomes of that job. Like I said, the best thing we can do is to be as prepared as possible and do the best job we know how.”

Related Articles