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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2006

Strong re-entry

After some high drama caused by the appearance of mysterious floating debris, the space shuttle Atlantis' safe return to Cape Canaveral - following its mission to resupply the crew of the international space station - has provided a welcome and badly needed psychological boost for the space program.

The ship's perfect dark-sky re-entry just before dawn lit up the horizon with a brilliant contrail, providing TV audiences with a spectacular light show.

To say there were sighs of relief at NASA after the mission is an understatement. If the shuttle had burned up during re-entry, it would not only have been a tragic loss of life, it would have ended America's adventure in space for a decade.

Tropical Storm Ernesto and a lightning strike on the shuttle's protective mast while on the launch pad delayed the mission for a few days, adding to general anxiety about the safety (and wisdom) of manned space missions.

If Atlantis had missed its launch window, it would have delayed construction of the international space station. It's difficult to imagine a bigger blow to American prestige. Atlantis had to succeed to prove to our Russian partners that the United States is capable of holding up its end of the resupply chain.

With fewer than a dozen missions left before the aging shuttle fleet is retired and another generation of orbital flyers takes its place in the next decade, NASA needed a big success to continue reclaiming the can-do reputation it earned during the Apollo years.

Atlantis gets the credit.

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