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A second look seems to indicate that the piece that fell off the fuel tank actually may have caused the accident. They did notice this the first time around, but decided it was ok. This asessement may prove to have been wrong. You ve probably seen the footage from space that seems to show a big dent in the wing. It's not hard to imagine that some hyudralical or electrical system underneath it might have been damaged. I wonder if they even could have repaired it in orbit if they had discovered it. If true, this means that there was no fault with the descent in itself. Instead, the Akilles heel of the shuttle flight, takeoff. It's damn expensive, dangerous and wasteful of energy. Vertical takeoff was the biggest compromise of the entire shuttle design. The original idea was to have it start as an airplane. Everything except the fuel would be reusable. They never reached that goal, and had to go back to a regular, rocket-like takeoff.
Still, I'm keeping to the opinion that age wasn't a factor. The shuttle is painstakingly checked for damages between each flight. Pieces are being replaces. Systems are being updated. Every shuttle is enhanced when something is found to work less well than it is.
But you're very right that it isn't just a normal plane. This is a critical point. It's a very complex combination of extremely complicated systems, whose interaction is largely undeterministic. There are so many things that can go wrong, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot foresee everything. Apollo 13 is a good example. They had even anticipated that an accident like that could happen, but they had not trained for it because it was generally agreed that if so many systems broke at the same time the astronauts would never survive, so why bother training for it? That Nasa managed to bring them back to earth alive is a good example of what great people are working there. One of their most amazing achievements ever!