Discovery lands safely. What now?

The space shuttle Discovery made a picture-perfect landing Tuesday in the California desert, capping America’s return to manned spaceflight but also reviving the debate over the safety of the decades-old spacecraft. Jarring the California coast with a pair of sonic booms, Discovery glided to a landing at 5:11 a.m. in the Mojave Desert. â??Ã?¶ But amid the cheers, aerospace experts said the glitches that dogged the flight â??Ã?” falling foam insulation, faulty sensors, protruding heat-resistant fabric, a torn insulation blanket â??Ã?” underscored the fragility of the shuttles and NASA’s troubling inability to resolve fundamental safety problems. They said the space agency had a long way to go before shuttle flights regained their routine status, a necessary hurdle before the nation embarks on President Bush’s far more complex plan to send astronauts to the moon and Mars.

Article here. The future of space flight can be found in the same desert where Discovery landed. The Mojave happens to be home to Burt Rutan and he and others like him will likely be the ones to reinvigorate space exploration. For more, see this recent article of mine. Also check out the Space Travel section of this yearâ??Ã?ôs Annual Privatization Report (see esp. â??Ã?úThe New Space Entrepreneurâ??Ã?ù on page 9). And hereâ??Ã?ôs an interesting article that compares the complexity of the shuttle with the simplicity of Rutanâ??Ã?ôs SpaceShipOne. Take, for example, the hatch:

The shuttle hatch swings out and requires complicated mechanisms to seal it for flight. The SpaceShipOne hatch has no moving parts and opens inward. It is held in place by the cabin pressure. He said it probably cost no more than a couple hundred bucks. Comparing it to the hatch on the shuttle is in part comparing apples to oranges, but does bring up a valid point about the value of a simple solution.

Hereâ??Ã?ôs a chronology of Discoveryâ??Ã?ôs troubles:

The space shuttle Discovery’s flight was postponed from May to July because of concerns about ice buildup, and the July 13 countdown was halted because of a faulty fuel sensor. A look at the problems that Discovery’s crew faced: July 26: A chunk of insulating foam broke off the external fuel tank during launch but did not strike the orbiter. NASA suspended all future flights until the problem could be resolved. Aug. 3: Two gap fillers glued between tiles on the orbiter’s underside had come loose during launch, posing a danger of excess heat on reentry. An astronaut removed the gap fillers during a spacewalk. Aug. 4: A section of thermal blanket had pulled loose near the cockpit during launch. NASA engineers cleared the shuttle for landing after determining that the blanket posed a slim chance of breaking loose and damaging the orbiter during reentry.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.