America breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday when the space shuttle Discovery touched down at Edwards Air Force Base in California, ending the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster. It was a troubled mission, but NASA officials call it an "outstanding success."

This was the most closely watched shuttle mission in the program's 24-year history, with dozens of cameras trained on the orbiter from launch to touchdown, looking for the kind of damage that doomed the Columbia crew.

Thus the chipped tiles on Discovery's belly, the errant gap fillers sticking out from between tiles and the ripped thermal blanket, became the stuff for worldwide debate and consternation.

Other missions likely featured similar dings and dents, if not worse.

The most worrisome images showing up on the cameras were the pieces of foam insulation flaking off the external fuel tank during the launch. A suitcase-sized chunk of foam damaged the Columbia's wing and led to the fatal breakup of the orbiter on re-entry.

That is a problem that will have to be solved before the next shuttle mission is launched. The handling of Discovery's external tank is under scrutiny, including a repair job involving a spot that was sanded down at the factory and a hole that was filled in.

If the problems experienced by Discovery's fuel tank are found to be unique, Atlantis could be launched in late September. If not, the shuttle fleet likely faces a lengthy grounding.

We need the shuttle to finish constructing the International Space Station, and to help bridge the gap until a new space vehicle is developed to take men back to the moon and on to Mars.

Space travel has always been risky, and likely always will be. But NASA's foremost consideration in the coming weeks and months should be to make the space shuttle as safe as possible. We need the space shuttle, but not at the cost of more human lives.



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