Waste of money?

Critics accuse Nasa of wasting trillions of US taxpayer dollars sending men and women into space for what amounts to great public relations but little in the way of visible scientific progress.

 

Robert Park, a physicist, says: "Every advance we have made in space has been made with robots… so far the human space program has held us back, it’s not advanced us at in space."

 

Manned space travel is much more expensive than unmanned exploration, and arguably stands in the way of advancing space science with robotics.

 

The Endeavour spacecraft cost $2.2bn to construct. It will never leave lower orbit, confined mostly to maintaining the outdated International space station.

 

By comparison, the unmanned Phoenix vessel currently on a 10-month journey to the north pole of Mars, cost just over $400m and may yet reveal the secrets of the red planet.

 

Park asks: "What is it that we are sending the humans to find? What is it that we're sending them to do that we can’t design a machine to do better?"

 

"If it's just for the thrill, send them bungee jumping. This is not a thrill the taxpayers ought to be paying for."

 

But sending people to the stars is seen as central to the frontier spirit that America still embraces and Nasa depends on the enchantment of the public to support its $17bn a year budget.

 

Roger Launius, Nasa's former chief historian says "this is where science meets psychology".

 

"The American space programme is, to many Americans, a critical chapter of US history which began with first settlers on ships then pioneers in wagons."

 

Endeavour is due to be replaced in 2010 by a new manned spacecraft called Orion.

 

Its mission is to return to the moon by the year 2020, at a fraction of the cost of previous lunar missions.

Endeavour's lift-off had been scheduled for Tuesday but Nasa delayed it due to a leaky valve in the crew cabin which needed replacement.
 
The flight was the second of four Nasa has scheduled for this year to complete work before the remaining shuttles are decommissioned in three years.
 
The Endeavour last flew in 2002 and had undergone a complete overhaul following the Columbia accident that grounded the shuttle fleet for two-and-a-half years.
 
Morgan left teaching and became a fully-fledged astronaut in 1998 to continue Christa McAuliffe's mission.
 
McAuliffe and her crewmates were killed 73 seconds after launch when one of Challenger's booster rockets failed.
 
Michael Griffin, a Nasa administrator, said Morgan will operate a robotic arm on the Endeavour mission.
 
Morgan eventually plans to return to classroom teaching.
 
"This mission is symbolic," she said before the mission. "I know that people will be thinking about not just Christa, but the Challenger crew and the Challenger mission. And that's a good thing."
 
Morgan and her crewmates planned to inspect on Thursday the shuttle's wing panels and nosecap for damage from debris strikes during lift-off.
 
The scans are part of safety upgrades made after the 2003 Columbia accident which was caused by a piece of insulation foam that fell off the fuel tank during lift-off and struck a wing.
 
The damage caused the shuttle's heat shield to fail as it flew through the atmosphere for landing 16 days later.