Publication: The Sun
Outta space? Shuttle's grounded
WHEN the space shuttle Discovery blasted off on Tuesday, the eyes of the world were upon it. A spectacular firework rocketing into a clear blue sky - once more heading towards that Final Frontier.
America was back in the space business. But more than that, the human spirit was soaring high with Discovery and its seven crew.
Now the shuttle fleet is grounded once more and experts ask if it will ever fly again.
Potentially catastrophic pieces of foam insulation fell from the main fuel tank during launch. The larger chunk missed the shuttle. But one piece may have chipped a tile that protects it against searing heat.
Nasa's Bill Parsons said: "Until we're ready, we won't go fly again. We've got a lot of work in front of us."
Yesterday as Cdr Eileen Collins, 48, prepared to dock with the International Space Station, she flipped the shuttle over so that Nasa could examine its underside.
And foam failure was just what they didn't want on a mission meant to show the shuttle was safe.
This was the first flight since that terrible day in February 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over the States, killing seven crew. It was a chunk of debris that doomed that shuttle, hitting the leading edge of a wing.
Nasa chiefs were accused of almost criminal complacency in ignoring the risks.
What's worse, this was their second disaster. In January 1986, Challenger exploded. A rubber washer had iced up and failed on a fuel tank - it was a known risk that was ignored.
The night before launch, Florida had its coldest night in memory and the ice prevented the ring from forming a tight seal. Half a million gallons of liquid fuel exploded killing the seven crew.
America was shocked by the tragedy. Millions had been excited by the first manned missions since Apollo went to the Moon.
What's more, this was just like sci-fi. Top gun heroes could fly these babies into space, whizz among the stars then fly home and park for the next mission.
Public demand after the success of TV's Star Trek gave the first-built shuttle its name - Enterprise. It was going to be called Constitution. Columbia launched first on April 12, 1981. Since then six craft have flown 114 missions and carried hundreds of men and women into orbit.
The shuttle has lifted satellites into space and been a taxi to the International Space Station. One of its famous achievements was to place the Hubble space telescope into orbit - bringing home the wonders of the universe.
In a world full of war, terror and hatred, manned spaceflight represents the triumph of all that is good in human nature. The sense of adventure, advancement and exploration. The same spirit that sent Columbus and Cook in search of new horizons.
Manned spaceflight is never routine, it is a dangerous business. Being an astronaut takes courage and nerves of steel.
After 24 years, the shuttle is overdue for replacement. Nasa is designing new ships to continue Man's inevitable journey towards Mars and beyond.
It may be the end of the shuttle. But it's not the end of the dream.