THERE will be widespread international relief and pleasure that NASA's 13day Discovery mission ended successfully with the safe return of the six astronauts to Kennedy Space Center. The decision by Dr Michael Griffin, NASA's chief administrator, to authorise the mission despite doubts held by some of his team of experts, cannot have been easy. The shuttle fleet is ageing and anxieties lingered over the possibility of a repeat accident to Discovery's fuel tank that so tragically brought the Columbia mission to an end three years ago. The question now is whether NASA can complete work on the international space station in the four years that the remaining three orbiters can be expected to remain in service. Tbe task calls for 16 missions in this time to the halfbuilt space station. Discovery delivered some seven tonnes of supplies to the space station which now has a crew of three for the first time since May 2003. Some critics think that the space station is now almost a white elephant in low Earth orbit but the US administration is committed to completing it by 2010. This target is again feasible if no new problems emerge with the shuttles. Dr Griffin sounded both a warnming and a commitment shortly after Discovery touched down: The words routine human spaceflight do not belong in the same sentence. But we know what the job is before us and we have to do it.
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