On the seventh try, NASA finally launched space shuttle Columbia on Friday, but some analysts are questioning the toil, cost and risk associated with its oft-delayed mission.
Persevering through the frustrating and expensive series of false starts, a full complement of seven astronauts promptly began working in two shifts on a variety of experiments that were … not exciting.
Important, said NASA managers, but not electrifying. Promising, said scientists, but not spectacular. Costly, said NASA critics, but not cost-effective, and not always worth the peril of human space flight.
“They need to be sending robots on expendable vehicles to do a lot of this stuff,” said Edward Hudgins of the Cato Institute, a Washington group that studies space policy. “Instead, NASA tries to tailor its experiments so it needs astronauts up there instead of robots.”
Partially due to safety concerns associated with the presence of astronauts, Columbia was bedeviled by six launch delays during the past three weeks.
The shuttle was plagued by defects in its fuel, hydraulic and computer systems - even though it just emerged from a yearlong, $33 million tune-up. A late-breaking safety check of Columbia’s engines forced another delay. Unfavorable weather caused additional postponements.
With the launch schedule in disarray, controllers told the astronauts that if they were not in space by Friday, a higher-priority flight would bump their mission to late next month.
Extreme measures were required, so the astronauts boarded the shuttle Friday wearing their red, white and blue caps backward to break the jinx.
“One more try,” a mission controller told them.
This time, it worked. At 9:53 a.m. EDT Friday, the shuttle and its crew lifted off - to the enormous relief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Patience and perseverance are real good virtues to have in this business,” said Loren Shriver, a launch manager and former astronaut. “From a program viewpoint, we’re extremely happy to have Columbia in orbit.”
Soon after reaching cruising altitude of 172 miles above Earth, the crew divided into Red and Blue teams that will perform fluid, crystal and plant experiments. Because some tests must be monitored around the clock, the crew compartment was crammed with seven astronauts, the most that can be comfortably accommodated.