The space shuttle Discovery, slated to launch on December 7, has a big task ahead of it. Large sections of the International Space Station (ISS) will be powered down while the electrical system is reconfigured to a more powerful, more permanent setup. Discovery will also deliver a new addition to the station, release three satellites, and swap out an ISS crew member.
COMMENT: As impressive as this mission is, it would be more impressive if the ISS partners, particularly the U.S., had funded the work planned and required to maintain a crew larger than two people. With only two astronauts normally on board, and key science sections like the centrifuge module stranded on Earth, we are risking a vehicle and a brave and talented crew to support a space station that is not getting very much done in terms of science and exploration. And we're doing it on a schedule-driven night launch of the Shuttle, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended not be done since it limits the effectiveness of optical cameras looking for launch damage.
I agree with the idea that a permanent human presence in space is at least symbolically important, and the experience gained in assembling the station will be useful for future endeavors. As to the risk, there will always be risk in space travel, and we have to accept that if we want to further out from Earth. All that said, the objectives should be more important than to support a minimal station that makes the news only when there's a commercial stunt like launching a golf ball.