Is the USA ready to put the lives of seven astronauts at risk just to keep the illusion of its technological supremacy?
Discovery shuttle is seemingly destined to bring home not only the seven crewmembers, but the entire US space industry too. Bill Parsons, the chairman of the space shuttle program, stated before Discovery docked the International Space Station that the USA was going to suspend shuttle flights indefinitely again.
Judging upon a series of misfortunes, which US spaceships have recently suffered, NASA experts will have to forget about ambitious plans to conquer Mars and focus their attention on a much more important problem – the safe homecoming of Discovery's crew.
Discovery struck a bird as it was blasting off the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, whereas a large fragment of the fuel tank tile fell off the spacecraft's insulation afterwards. Experts say that the fragment did not cause any further damage to the shuttle, although they are still at a loss regarding the reason of the insulation damage at the belly of Discovery. Similar damages resulted in the crash of shuttle Columbia, which exploded in the Earth's atmosphere in the beginning of 2003.
The crew of Discovery shuttle found themselves in a quite ambiguous position on account of NASA's decision to suspend shuttle flights again. The chairman of the project has already released quite a surprising statement to astronauts on the launching day, having said that Discovery would fly into space even if malfunctions were detected. The latest statement from the space shuttle program manager has proved it again that Mr. Parsons did not give much value to the fate of the crew.
Experts said before that chipping pieces of the heat-shielding insulation may damage the surface of the spaceship during the launching process. NASA planned to evacuate Discovery's crew on board Atlantis shuttle in the event it was not possible to repair the damage on the orbit. Atlantis could have been launched into space urgently in a month time to save the crew.
NASA's decision to suspend shuttle flights means that Discovery's crew can count on their own efforts only. The astronauts examined the surface of the spaceship with the help of a laser flaw-detecting apparatus and a 15-meter manipulator before the shuttle docked the ISS. The astronauts will also take a walk into space to examine the insulation and conduct repairing works. NASA specialists have already acknowledged, however, that existing technologies would let the astronauts approach the damaged spot near the front chassis area.
There is only one way out of the critical situation to evacuate the American astronauts. It is an open secret that the crew of Discovery could be rescued with the help of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Nikolay Sevastyanov, the Director of the Russian Space Corporation Energia has recently offered Russia's help to NASA. “If necessary, we will be able to bring home nine astronauts on board three Soyuz spacecraft in January and February of the next year. However, it is up to NASA to
make the decision,” Mr. Sevastyanov said.
This is a rather difficult decision to make, from the political point of view. Russia has already fulfilled its ISS obligations: Energia does not intend to launch three Soyuz spaceships for free. The USA, however, does not have a right to pay for evacuation of its astronauts. US congressmen used to pass a law about the non-distribution of space technologies, which banned the funding of space developments in foreign states.
It goes without saying that the USA's image will be considerably damaged, if NASA shuts down the shuttle program and starts buying spaceships from Russia. The myth about the ultimate predominance of American technologies would be destroyed in this case. On the other hand, the Russian space industry would receive a powerful impetus for its development: the profit would most likely be used for another technological breakthrough in the field of space exploration. Washington will have to solve a very serious problem in the nearest future: is the USA ready to put the lives of seven astronauts at risk just to keep the illusion of its technological supremacy?