Leap of faith

A major space launch puts engineering at the centre of the world’s attention in a way that few other events can manage.

This week’s space shuttle blast-off was no exception, not least because the spectre of the Columbia disaster looms large over the mission of its successor, Discovery.

The should-they/shouldn’t they build up to the launch, with some of Nasa’s most senior engineers at one stage in the latter camp, only heightened the tension.

The core of the debate was the fuel tank foam insulation which has plagued the shuttle project since the loss of Columbia.

Many involved in the management of complex, demanding projects will recognise the dilemmas faced by Nasa’s administrators.

A looming deadline, a lack of consensus at the highest level of an engineering team and the presence of the feared word ‘safety’ sounds like a recipe for sleepless nights in most contexts.

In the context of the shuttle, the stakes could hardly be higher – highest of all, it hardly needs stating, for the astronauts aboard Discovery and their families. The engineers who voiced doubts over the shuttle’s readiness apparently only signed off the launch once they were convinced that adequate escape measures were in place for the crew even if Discovery itself ran into difficulties.

Nasa had to balance the risks of proceeding with the consequences of not going, namely an increasingly pressurised flight schedule facing the shuttles in the lead-up to their retirement in 2010.

In the end, and in the full glare of the world’s media spotlight, Nasa went for a launch, and all of us will be crossing our fingers for Discovery’s return.

The run-up to the launch demonstrated once again that where space technology is concerned, and despite a quarter of a century of huge technological progress, there are still many leaps into the unknown, and to some extent every launch is an experiment. In space, risk comes with the territory, and that is unlikely to ever change.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online