Opinion

The shuttle mission

Question: What was the purpose of the two-week mission for the space shuttle Endeavor?

Answer: We're not sure.

If you answered that the mission was to let a teacher conduct a lesson in a weightless atmosphere for kids back on earth, you're probably at least partially correct. One of the aims of this mission seems to have been to give teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan her shot at a space mission. Morgan, 55, was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, who perished on the doomed flight of the Challenger in 1986.

It seems that the Endeavor's crew also has been kept busy making a few repairs to the outside of the floating space station. That seems to be the order of the day whenever a shuttle is sent on a mission.

Question: What purpose does the space station serve other than as a floating space motel for Russian and American crews?

Answer: We're not sure.

As often is the case, the principle drama of the mission is whether the shuttle will bring the crew home safely. This time, astronauts and Mission Control spent an entire week trying to decide whether a gouge in the belly of the shuttle during liftoff would pose a problem during re-entry.

Fortunately, they concluded that it won't. If they had determined otherwise, the crew might have had to take a difficult and dangerous walk in space to make repairs. Apparently, the damage to the thermal shield was not extensive enough that the shuttle might burn up during re-entry, as Columbia did in 2003, but it might have allowed damage to the craft's aluminum frame that would have required lengthy post-flight repairs.

But the consensus is that the damage is relatively minor, so that drama now is behind them. Endeavor is scheduled to undock from the space station today and land on Wednesday.

But there may be some drama ahead. Hurricane Dean could veer toward Houston and force Mission Control to relocate to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If that happens, the shuttle could be ordered home Tuesday or remain at the space station longer than planned.

Well, that may not constitute real drama, just some schedule changing. Meanwhile, the drama could be taking place back here on terra firma as Dean closes in on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

We are relieved that the damage to the shuttle won't endanger the crew. We hope everyone gets home safe and sound. But we have one more question: Is the shuttle program really necessary?

Answer: We're not sure.

IN SUMMARY

With each passing mission, we wonder more and more about whether they are necessary.

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