We can all be thankful for the space shuttle's blessedly safe return to space last week when Discovery roared off the pad and achieved a near-flawless orbital insertion -- even if it was followed by the disturbing news that yet another chunk of insulating foam had dropped away from one of the boosters on the way up, and that insulating material is protruding from two thermal tile sections. While this time there seems no significant damage or danger for reentry from either problem, once again the fleet will have to be grounded while NASA's engineers search for new solutions, which means our ability to place humans back in orbit is still in jeopardy.
Truth is, progress in manned space flight to and from low Earth orbit has been mired in jeopardy for a very long time, and what was largely undisclosed last week is an upsetting reality: No matter how fast the shuttle fix comes this time, all our remaining shuttles -- Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor -- are scheduled to be retired for good by 2010, leaving the United States no means of reaching orbit with people aboard.
Yes, NASA has a new manned vehicle in development, tentatively dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (the effort is called Project Constellation). But the new CEV is not expected to be a reality before 2014, and in the meantime -- if the aging shuttles are truly retired -- the United States will have no method of sending humans into low earth orbit until the CEV becomes a flyable, man-rated reality. That not only means the International Space Station will be forced to rely primarily on the Russians for crew transport and supplies, any satellite repairs or other "on orbit" manned research projects will have to wait as well.
And in the meantime, we continue to squander yet another area of technological leadership, inviting China, Japan, Russia, the European Space Agency, and any other country with enough resources and vision to pick up our slack.
Of course, the bright beginning of regular private spaceflight is on the near horizon. As I write this, Virgin Atlantic's visionary, iconoclastic creator Sir Richard Branson is working hard with American aerospace genius Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites to build a commercial spacecraft that will take anyone with $200,000 to spend into suborbital zero gravity within the next few years. Rutan -- a modern-day Wilbur Wright -- is designing a larger version of "Spaceship One," the brilliant design that made two successful suborbital flights last October from Mojave, Calif., winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an award posted years earlier to encourage private spaceflight (Click here for more information: http://www.xprizefoundation.com/default.asp().
It's just the beginning of what science fiction writers and aerospace dreamers have envisioned for many decades -- routine, safe civilian access for all of us to space. Eventually, orbital hotels and even a moon base will be accessible to any of us the way airline flights became accessible to average Americans after World War II. The timeline and the vision that drives it is the problem.
The pathway to that future should have been blazed in more ways than one by NASA and the Congress that fuels it with money. Instead, NASA -- for all its great worth and fantastic minds -- has let itself get mired in a form of thinking best expressed by the very dangerous phrase: "This is the way we've always done it."