... and maybe it is. The recent launch of Discovery was performed safely and smoothly, but now it appears that despite years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars of engineering Space Shuttle foam keeps falling off.

HOUSTON, July 27 - NASA suspended further flights of the space shuttle fleet on Wednesday after determining that a large piece of insulating foam had broken off the external fuel tank of the Discovery shortly after liftoff Tuesday morning, the same problem that doomed the Columbia and its seven astronauts in the last mission, two and a half years ago.

The foam does not appear to have struck the Discovery, so the decision will not curtail its 12½-day mission to the International Space Station, the officials said. But further flights will be postponed indefinitely, starting with that of the Atlantis, which was to have lifted off as early as September. ...

The effort to fix the foam problem had consumed more than two years and hundreds of millions of dollars. NASA identified the area on the tank that shed the latest piece of foam as a risk, but put off redesigning it.

"We decided it was safe to fly as is," Mr. Parsons said. "Obviously, we were wrong."

The incident occurred two minutes into the launching, at a point where the atmosphere is so thin that the piece drifted away. The Columbia accident occurred in part because the foam fell off the tank about 82 seconds after liftoff, when the air was much thicker and slowed the foam so the climbing orbiter struck it with great force.

N. Wayne Hale, the deputy manager of the shuttle program, said that if the Discovery foam had been shed earlier, "we think that it would have been really bad." ...

Others were more dismayed. A NASA engineer who has been involved in the return-to-flight effort said: "It's an ugly story. It's a mess." The engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issues involved, added, "Everyone's really, really disappointed," but continued: "It is what it is. Physics doesn't lie."

Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who now teaches at Duke and is a frequent critic of the space program, said that in some ways the problem was "worse than an unexpected anomaly arising."

"This was the major problem that they were looking to solve," Mr. Roland said. "It must be enormously demoralizing to them."

It doesn't take an engineer to tell you that when you spend all that time and money on a single problem, you expect it to be fixed. The lost foam -- a repeat of an earlier, shallow problem -- is much more distressing than a tempermental redundant sensor. Rand Simberg has an excellent post (from before the launch) in which he explains that a system as complex as the Shuttle will always have some failures, and that the system is designed to tolerate them. (The complexity of the system is the source of many problems with the Shuttle, and the primary reason to scrap the program.)

Any system as complex, with as many components as the Shuttle, must have adequate redundancy to allow safe operations with a failure of some components, because there are so many of them that some are bound to fail statistically, and if we mindlessly demand perfection on every flight, we'd never fly. This is the airline philosophy, and it used to be NASA's, but they've gotten gun shy, at least on this particular issue. But in making an a priori decision now to go with a failed sensor at launch, they're returning to a common-sense approach, for which the system was designed. ...

Now as to these demands that NASA not launch until the sensor is fixed, how much are those making the demand willing to spend (noting that the money belongs to all of the taxpayers, not them individually)? And to what end?

Someone once said that when failure is not an option, success gets very expensive.

Right now, NASA's hypersafety philosophy has made spaceflight hyper expensive (though not particularly safe). Rather than unrealistically making failure not an option, we need to embrace the fact that failures will occur occasionally. What we have to do is make sure that failures aren't as expensive as they were in the case of Challenger and Columbia (and numerous other lesser NASA program failures). What that means is making it cheap to fail, which in turn means making it cost much less to make attempts. That won't happen until we develop much more robust systems, with much more activity. But investing further millions into Shuttle (not only in terms of money spent fixing things, but the costs of continued delay, which are substantial) in a futile effort to make it any safer than it currently is, is a fool's errand. We should have flown a couple years ago.

Most public reaction that I've heard -- other than in the media -- is similar to that of Mike from Mike's Random Rantings who says that space flight is supposed to be dangerous.

Has the public gotten so used to the idea of flying into space that they have forgotten how hard and dangerous it is to put that much mass into orbit? Does the public think that flying to space should be as safe as driving to work?

These are ridiculous notions.

I beg to differ! Space flight should be much safer than driving to work, just as flying from Los Angeles to New York is much safer. The reason its still so dangerous is that we're launching a system designed in the 1970s that's run by government bureaucrats.

Casey from Right On! thinks NASA should start taking bids on future projects by private contractors, but I think a prize system modeled on the Ansari X Prize would be more efficient. Most of the engineers and managers at NASA are top-notch, and it's not their fault that the organization is so unwieldy, it's just the nature of giant bureaucracies. NASA should be converted from a production and engineering organization into a funding organization similar to the National Institutes of Health. The engineers who want to keep working on space exploration should be hired by private companies and get huge raises (as should all engineers everywhere, naturally).

Update:
Here's a private space venture I'd love to work for: The Spaceship Company.

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