Next space mission must be a success for America and Florida

The Fourth of July weekend is all about adventure. There are numerous road trips planned, beaches to explore and cookouts to enjoy. But for one particular group of seven, the weekend will begin with the ultimate adventure: the scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

STS-121 – and all shuttle launches – touch on a common need: the exploration of the unknown. Whether it takes the form of the Lewis and Clark expedition, an African safari or hurtling into space, humans like to experience the unknown in hopes of grander understanding. Despite this worthwhile calling, STS-121 would be better suited for a delayed launch.

As stated in one of my columns before Discovery’s launch in 2005, the space program is vital to Florida’s economy. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (no pun intended) to figure that out. If I’d been asked what I knew about Florida before moving here in 2001, I would have replied, “Disney World and Cape Canaveral.”

But thankfully, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) brings much more tangible benefits to the state. A study under the direction of Warren McHone, professor of economics at the University of Central Florida, found that in fiscal year 2005, $3.7 billion in output, 35,000 jobs and $85 million in state and local taxes can be attributed to NASA and the Kennedy Space Center.

But the shuttle program is not without controversy. The 2003 Columbia disaster was caused by a 1.67-pound piece of foam dislodging on liftoff and striking the left wing, causing a tragedy on re-entry. NASA, according to the Boston Globe, has spent nearly $1.2 billion on modifications to the shuttle since 2003, and the problem is still not completely fixed.

Adding to the controversy, both the safety director and chief engineer recommended that the launch be delayed, but were overruled by NASA chief Michael Griffin. This is not to say that the decision was made without risk analysis equations and much debate, but let’s use a little common sense here. If the head of safety says a launch should be delayed, I’m thinking that should be a done deal. Delaying could help illuminate the foam-shedding dilemma, while another tradgedy from rushing a launch could be disastrous for America’s space program.

Certainly, Griffin has to weigh various viewpoints in reaching his decision. Risk is certainly something that goes with manned space flight. Astronauts and cosmonauts have gone into space 717 times with 18 giving their lives, not counting launch pad disasters.

But in this case, NASA seems overwhelmed by the goal of completing the International Space Station (ISS). Some 16 flights are scheduled between now and 2010, when the shuttle program will be retired. Granted, it has been nice to see this multinational approach to space exploration, but with NASA having an identity crisis, what would be so bad in admitting it is unable to achieve the completion timeline?

After all, President George W. Bush has stated his goal of a return to the moon and eventually to Mars. While opponents probably wish him to be a sole crewman on a one-way trip, these objectives mean that NASA will need to retool itself to overcome future hurdles. Maybe completion of the ISS is beyond America’s capabilities given the long-term goals and funding of NASA.

Despite the simmering of dissent due to a plan that would have the crew stay at the ISS until a rescue mission could be launched, NASA requires some serious introspection in moving forward. This launch should not be judged as a vindication solely if the crew returns safely, but rather that it exposes a culture where serious questions about safety and risk management have been raised. The future of the American space program – and Florida’s economy – depends on it.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.