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After nearly a week of fixes, tweaks, and nervous twitching, the United States is back in space – although it didn’t take long for the astronauts to find themselves using some of the new safety equipment added after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia two years ago.

The crew has been examining the exterior of the shuttle with a camera handled by a robotic arm.

It’s difficult for me to think back to just one week ago, just moments before the launch was scrubbed, as I was writing this entry about the space program. I was genuinely excited about the prospect of the U.S. returning to outer space.

And yet, here we are, in space, and all of the news reports center on the constant surveillance needed to insure that the Shuttle won’t pull apart upon re-entry. From reading the news, it sure appears as if being an astronaut these days is about three things: running system diagnostics, looking at the hull’s exterior to check for stability, and then running some more system diagnostics.

Maybe, as senior editor Wade Roush told, that’s because the Shuttle program is an ancient technology that should be scrapped. It has, to paraphrase him, taken the fun out of space travel. Maybe, as I suspect, it’s because we are extremely cautious as a nation, always out to make sure nothing bad happens to anyone (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

Unfortunately, space travel will always be dangerous, but, as I’ve written repeatedly, I think space exploration is the most important thing we can do as a people; however, there should have been one caveat with that thought: we should actually be able to explore space when we travel.

Nobody wants to buy a new car, and then spend all of their time cruising down the road staring at their tires to make sure that there won’t be a blowout. So why would we want to send our astronauts up into space with a Shuttle that requires constant – constant – supervision?

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