August 03, 2005

These guys make it look easy

This morning, Discovery astronauts successfully removed two pieces of gap filler, which were protruding from between the thermal tiles, from the underside of the shuttle. has continuing coverage of the STS-114 mission.

I'm beginning to appreciate what my parents' generation must have felt to witness the golden age of spaceflight prior to the moon landings, when men like Gagarin, Shepard, Glenn, and Armstrong literally went where no man had gone before. Today's EVA is similarly unprecedented; no one has ever gone gone outside to perform impromptu repairs on a spacecraft before (though in-orbit repairs have been carried out on orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope). Today's spacewalk supports the feasibility of repairing minor damage while in flight on future missions.

The realist in me does have to wonder, though, how much of this is really necessary. Granted, STS-114 is a mission intended to prove the shuttle's safety and spaceworthiness, and it is only natural that it be more closely scrutinized. Yet although spaceflight is dangerous, it isn't necessarily delicate. John Glenn brought the Friendship 7 capsule to earth safely in 1962 even though its heat shield had become loose and was only attached by the straps that held the retro package in place. On the other hand, my entire aerospace career to date consists of six months as an editor, so I'll leave the procedures to the experts.

Meanwhile, today NASA is wondering what to do about a puffed-out thermal blanket just beneath the cockpit, which they are worried may fly off during re-entry and damage the craft. Has any vessel ever been this closely scrutinized while in flight?