For all the talk of safety improvements, there really isn't a way to make the Shuttle much safer. The changes made with so much fanfare after the Columbia loss have been marginal, serving to prevent the psychologically untenable situation of watching damage occur at launch and being unable to do anything about it before re-entry, many days later. Actual safety improvements to the Shuttle - putting the orbiter on top of the launch stack, installing a crew escape system - would be so hideously expensive that they have been consistently vetoed.You know, I agree with every thing Maciej says, especially the parts about how the Space Shuttle technology was driven more by politics than science. But I've got to wonder if this is really so new a thing. I mean, were Carracks and Caravels really the best-possible sea-going technology at the time of Christopher Columbus? Or were they just good enough to show what could be done and, therefore, lead to the development of the Galleon?
With 28 launches to go, probability tells us that the chance of losing another orbiter before the program's scheduled retirement is about 50-50. But past experience suggests that NASA will continue flying these things until one of them blows up again (note that suspicious four-year gap in manned flight capability right around the time the Shuttle is supposed to retire). This seems like as good a time as any to ask: why are we doing this?
My point is this: The Space Shuttle is the wrong technology at the wrong time, and yet it still works! (Minimally, perhaps, but it does work.) Yes it has killed people. So did Caravels, Carracks and Galleons. The technologies might be imperfect. The people manning them might be imperfect. But so long as there are heroes willing to risk their lives such things are good enough for glory.
None of this exempts us from learning from our mistakes. Blessed as we are with 20/20 hindsight we must make certain each step we take is both safer and more capable than the last. What we should never do is look back and decide the cost was too great to continue. Our dead heroes deserve a better legacy.