by Austin Bay
February 5, 2003
Do you -- flesh and blood you -- want to go into space?
Now that we have a track record that says every 60 or so shuttlemissions we can expect a fatal cataclysm? Even if you are Star Trekgeneration or steeped in NASA glory day nostalgia, are you willing to go upand out, and physically explore?
Despite the losses of Challenger and Columbia, my answer comeswith no reluctance: Yes. Get me a seat on the next mission.
It's been "yes" since fourth grade, when I sat in Miss Yoe'sclass at James Bowie Elementary School in Midland, Texas, and watched thelaunch of Alan Shepherd's Redstone sub-orbital shot on a black and white TV.
I strongly believe my "yes" is the typical response. I havechildren who want to go into space. I know young pilots praying for a crackat astronaut status, and the Columbia disaster doesn't diminish theiryearning.
No doubt the "ultimate amusement park ride" facet of spaceflightappeals to 9-year-olds, as it does to 50-year-old multimillionaires buying ashuttle trip from cash-strapped Russia. But it's never been the ride that'sthe deep appeal, it's the enterprise of reaching from the known to theunknown, and completing that reach by going there ourselves.
Columbia's crew was a collection of humanity's finest. Theindividual accomplishments and capabilities of each astronaut wereextraordinary. That's because it takes extraordinary people to challengefrontiers -- people with intellect, physical stamina and courage.
Col. Rick Husband, the mission commander, was a test pilot withnearly 4,000 hours in 40 different aircraft. Navy Cmdr. William McCool, theshuttle pilot, was second in his class at Annapolis. USAF Lt. Col. MikeAnderson achieved his childhood dream of spaceflight. Dr. David Brown was anM.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 scientificexperiments.
And finally, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, a lady described as quiet andmodest. Her talents were not modest. She moved to the United States fromIndia in 1982. She ties the American dream to the dream of space travel.
They died going out there. To lose such talent is tragedy, butto kill the enterprise because of the loss infinitely increases the tragedy,for the enterprise is itself what draws, forms, and allows the talent toappear and flourish.
The arguments over continuing a manned space program havealready started. They are old arguments, but they must be engaged and wonagain.
I recall a MacNeil-Lehrer program in the summer of 1989, 20years after the first moon landing. Jim Lehrer's interview featured novelistJames Michener and poet Maya Angelou. Angelou complained about spendingdollars in space versus addressing problems here at home. Her grievance withspace research was a litany of what hasn't been done to perfect currentconditions on the planet. Michener calmly devastated her argument bypointing out that those who wait for all problems to be solved at home willwait forever. The gist of his argument: If we followed the advice of Earth'sAngelous, we would still inhabit caves.
During the debate, it dawned on Angelou that, at least in thissphere, she was not the progressive.
A more sophisticated argument pits robots against mannedspacecraft. Increasingly able artificial intelligence systems mean we canget more out of robotics. Yet full-fledged space exploitation requireshumans and human creativity to respond to the unexpected challenge andopportunity.
To follow Michener's thought, some day we may need to inhabitspace. 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 mannedflight programs would be a terrible mistake.
Frontiers attract our species because they are the edge of newpossibilities. Space exploration and exploitation are no longer pure dreams.Space is a frontier, perhaps the ultimate frontier. At some point, going outthere is the sine qua non of being fully human: to want to know and to needto go.