The Challenge Ahead

“In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, `Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’ The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” — President George Bush, February 1, 2003.

Not many people appreciate how close the Apollo 11 landing on the moon came to a national catastrophe in 1969. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were nearing the lunar surface, they were having difficulty finding an appropriate landing spot. The astronauts were running low on fuel. If they could not find a suitable place to land, they would have to eject the lower half of the lunar landing module and ignite the engines of the upper portion. This upper portion would return them to lunar orbit. There they could rendezvous with the lunar command module and return to the Earth without ever landing on the moon. Intent on landing on the surface, Armstrong and Aldrin continue to search for a place, pushing the envelope of safety. When they finally landed on the surface, they only had seconds of fuel remaining.

If the lunar module had run out a fuel causing the it to crash on the surface, it is hard to imagine the enormous sense of tragedy the nation would have suffered, the bitter recriminations that would have followed, and the deadly sense of inadequacy that would have suffocated future exploration. In the contentious 1960s, the man’s attempt to reach the moon was one of the few national endeavors that united rather than divided. All this might have been lost, if the lunar module had a few seconds less fuel.

The odds finally caught up with the space program in 1986, when an O-ring in a solid rocket booster was a little too brittle on a cold morning. If full view of television cameras, the shuttle Challenger exploded killing all on board. The event was a particular shock because it shattered the illusion of invincibility that the American manned space program had acquired.

As this is written, the space shuttle Columbia has just disintegrated over the middle of Texas, fifteen minutes from landing in Florida. No one can know with certainty what went wrong. There will not be the same recriminations that would have occurred if Apollo 11 had failed. Chastened by the Challenger accident, the public will be very saddened, but not disillusioned. NASA is no longer considered invincible.

There have been over 100 shuttle launches. The broad public no longer shares the joy of discovery and accomplishment, but does feel the burdens of sadness when things go very wrong. One real danger is that the public will no longer want to finance manned spaceflight, perhaps fearful of the inevitable future tragedy. Indeed, interest has already withered. Over the last decade, NASA’s budget has declined and its programs starved. At present, it represents, only 0.7% of the entire federal budget. The public pointedly did not respond to the Challenger accident with an invigorated manned space program. The Challenger and Columbia astronauts certainly have given their “last full measure devotion” to meet the challenges of space exploration. The public certainly has not matched the effort of these explorers with sufficient support.

The shuttle Columbia was built in the late 1970s and first flew in April 1981. By his time, a second-generation shuttle, a shuttle design that could incorporate the experience of the first shuttle system, should be coming online. There is no such system for want of funding. This lack of financial support is the inevitable consequence of a public that is no longer intrigued in spaceflight and there is precious little political leadership to nurture such interest. There is no shortage of brave and energetic explorers willing to take the risks. NASA regularly turns away many highly qualified astronaut candidates. The only real way to do honor to the fallen astronauts is to support an invigorated NASA. We did not meet this challenge with the loss of Challenger. It remains to be seen what our collective response to the loss of Columbia will be.

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