Leading article: Spectacular - and pointless

Share

Now that the Discovery shuttle has safely returned to Earth, it is worth asking the question: what did it achieve? Nasa says that the launch of the 114th shuttle mission was a dramatic display of smoke, fire and sound which honoured the memory of the seven astronauts who lost their lives more than two years ago when the shuttle Columbia fell apart on re-entry.

Strong words, but the reality, of course, is a little more prosaic. Apart from delivering supplies to the International Space Station, Discovery 's principal activities were to carry out three space walks. One of these was to fix a new platform into its position on the space station, and the other two involved sending astronauts out to check and mend the shuttle itself as a result of its being hit by flying debris from its fuel tank on launch.

Indeed, one of the most abiding memories of the mission was the rather ludicrous image of an astronaut removing a sliver of grouting from between the tiles on the underside of the shuttle's heat shield. It was enough to draw the sympathies of any DIY decorator tackling a leaky old shower.

Nevertheless, the sight of the shuttle coming into land in complete darkness yesterday morning at the Edwards air force base in California was indeed a spectacular display of technological prowess. It took less than 10 minutes to cover 80 miles of its descent, landing perfectly on the runway without hitch.

There is no doubt that the shuttle - the first and so far the only reuseable manned spacecraft - was an amazing technological leap in space exploration, but one that has now past its best. It is also incredibly expensive, mainly because of the multiple fail-safe systems that have to be built in to its design to minimise the inevitable risks to the seven lives on board.

Yet further shuttle missions have been mothballed until the recurring problem with floating debris from the fuel tank has been resolved. So now that Nasa has shown that it can return to manned space missions, albeit in a truncated way, it is perhaps advisable to reconsider why we are sending people there in the first place.

As this newspaper has argued before, robotic technology can do most if not all of the things that humans can do in space. And whatever it is they are still incapable of doing could be done if the appropriate research was carried out to build even better robots.

It is not longer justifiable to send humans into space because they make good television pictures. There needs to be real benefits, and it is no longer evident that these benefits are worth the money - and the risk.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape