by Austin Bay
February 5, 2003
Now that we have a track record that says every 60 or so shuttle
missions we can expect a fatal cataclysm? Even if you are Star Trek
generation or steeped in NASA glory day nostalgia, are you willing to go up
and out, and physically explore?
Despite the losses of Challenger and Columbia, my answer comes
with no reluctance: Yes. Get me a seat on the next mission.
It's been "yes" since fourth grade, when I sat in Miss Yoe's
class at James Bowie Elementary School in Midland, Texas, and watched the
launch of Alan Shepherd's Redstone sub-orbital shot on a black and white TV.
I strongly believe my "yes" is the typical response. I have
children who want to go into space. I know young pilots praying for a crack
at astronaut status, and the Columbia disaster doesn't diminish their
No doubt the "ultimate amusement park ride" facet of spaceflight
appeals to 9-year-olds, as it does to 50-year-old multimillionaires buying a
shuttle trip from cash-strapped Russia. But it's never been the ride that's
the deep appeal, it's the enterprise of reaching from the known to the
unknown, and completing that reach by going there ourselves.
Columbia's crew was a collection of humanity's finest. The
individual accomplishments and capabilities of each astronaut were
extraordinary. That's because it takes extraordinary people to challenge
frontiers -- people with intellect, physical stamina and courage.
Col. Rick Husband, the mission commander, was a test pilot with
nearly 4,000 hours in 40 different aircraft. Navy Cmdr. William McCool, the
shuttle pilot, was second in his class at Annapolis. USAF Lt. Col. Mike
Anderson achieved his childhood dream of spaceflight. Dr. David Brown was an
M.D., test pilot and trapeze artist. Dr. Laurel Clark dived with Navy SEALs.
Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon was a combat pilot who ran batteries of scientific
And finally, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, a lady described as quiet and
modest. Her talents were not modest. She moved to the United States from
India in 1982. She ties the American dream to the dream of space travel.
They died going out there. To lose such talent is tragedy, but
to kill the enterprise because of the loss infinitely increases the tragedy,
for the enterprise is itself what draws, forms, and allows the talent to
appear and flourish.
The arguments over continuing a manned space program have
already started. They are old arguments, but they must be engaged and won
I recall a MacNeil-Lehrer program in the summer of 1989, 20
years after the first moon landing. Jim Lehrer's interview featured novelist
James Michener and poet Maya Angelou. Angelou complained about spending
dollars in space versus addressing problems here at home. Her grievance with
space research was a litany of what hasn't been done to perfect current
conditions on the planet. Michener calmly devastated her argument by
pointing out that those who wait for all problems to be solved at home will
wait forever. The gist of his argument: If we followed the advice of Earth's
Angelous, we would still inhabit caves.
During the debate, it dawned on Angelou that, at least in this
sphere, she was not the progressive.
A more sophisticated argument pits robots against manned
spacecraft. Increasingly able artificial intelligence systems mean we can
get more out of robotics. Yet full-fledged space exploitation requires
humans and human creativity to respond to the unexpected challenge and
To follow Michener's thought, some day we may need to inhabit
space. Robots can't inhabit the Andromeda galaxy on our behalf.
Perhaps we need a new manned system to replace the shuttle.
That's a debate this new tragedy must spur. However, terminating manned
flight programs would be a terrible mistake.
Frontiers attract our species because they are the edge of new
possibilities. Space exploration and exploitation are no longer pure dreams.
Space is a frontier, perhaps the ultimate frontier. At some point, going out
there is the sine qua non of being fully human: to want to know and to need