News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Exploration a natural desire, safety never fully assured

Since the beginning of time, man has had the urge to break out of his natural boundaries and explore the unknown beyond.

That exploration has always carried risks, whether from predators like lions and tigers, or from accidents like ships crashing against boulders hidden just below the water's surface.

But man's search for new lands or for new sources of food and water has also yielded great rewards. Those with the daring to venture into the unknown in spite of the danger have reaped dividends, often beyond that which they sought. Columbus was seeking a new route to the East. What he discovered was a whole new world.

Today's great frontier, the infinite universe of space outside our planet, past our solar system and even beyond our Milky Way galaxy, holds the best hope for man's long-term future. Our natural resources will one day be depleted. Our sun will eventually burn out. But the vast potential of space carries with it a hope of discovery, a prospect of new worlds, new sources of energy and new benefits we have not even conceived.

The five men and two women scheduled to lift off aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Saturday are merely the latest explorers in the ongoing search for that which is beyond our ken. While their mission is well defined — furthering construction of the International Space Station — and they are not scheduled to "boldly go where no man has gone before," their accomplishments in the next few days will help pave the way for greater exploration of far-away horizons.

Humans have gone into space 717 times and 18 astronauts and cosmonauts have died doing it. Top NASA officials were conflicted about whether to go ahead with Saturday's mission in light of the catastrophe that doomed shuttle Columbia 3 years ago. Research into the now infamous foam insulation that protects the shuttle's external fuel tank but can possibly break away and rip a lethal hole in the shuttle's skin has shown that the risk is much greater than originally thought.

NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor, a former shuttle commander, took the unusual step of dissenting from the space agency's decision to go ahead with Saturday's planned launch. Even though NASA has plans to leave the crew at the space station (until a later mission can rescue them) if the Discovery's skin is damaged, Mr. O'Connor's decision fell toward the side of caution.

But whether the risk to life is 1 in 100 or 1 in 7,000, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin ultimately decided to give the mission the go-ahead.

The astronauts are aware there are risks, known and unknown, associated with the mission. Their families obviously worry about their loved-ones' safety.

But the mission will go forward on schedule, weather permitting.

And man will be one step closer to pushing his boundaries farther out from this world.

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