The following editorial appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday, June 20:

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin made a tough but sound decision when he overrode the recommendations of two top agency officials and chose to move ahead with a July 1 launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

NASA’s chief engineer and safety officer recommended against launching Discovery, but 23 other senior managers recommended in favor. And the buck rightly stops with the agency’s administrator.

Griffin’s decision followed a two-day flight-readiness review attended by more than 200 engineers and marked by vigorous debate.

That’s a welcome contrast from the days before the 2003 Columbia disaster, when dissenting views were squelched.

While a diminished risk of critical damage from breakaway foam on the shuttle’s external fuel tank persists, NASA has made a series of changes in the wake of Columbia to protect astronauts.

If such damage is found on Discovery and can’t be fixed, the crew should be able to evacuate to the international space station and await a rescue.

Delaying Discovery’s mission to make more changes to the fuel tank would increase the pressure to launch to finish the space station before the shuttle’s scheduled retirement in 2010 – a pressure that could shortchange steps to deal with other risks.

Manned spaceflight is, even under the best conditions, a risky business.

NASA took a well-deserved pounding from critics after an investigation showed it had neglected safety before the Columbia disaster. But if the agency overcompensates, it might never return astronauts to orbit.

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