Monday, February 03, 2003
Unfortunately, the core problem that lay at the heart of the Challenger tragedy applies to the Columbia tragedy as well. That core problem is the space shuttle itself. For 20 years, the American space program has been wedded to a space-shuttle system that is too expensive, too risky, too big for most of the ways it is used, with budgets that suck up funds that could be invested in a modern system that would make space flight cheaper and safer. The space shuttle is impressive in technical terms, but in financial terms and safety terms no project has done more harm to space exploration. With hundreds of launches to date, the American and Russian manned space programs have suffered just three fatal losses in flight—and two were space-shuttle calamities. This simply must be the end of the program.While I agree that NASA could use some restructuring and reform (and some more $$), giving up on manned space flight seems rather short-sighted to me.
Will the much more expensive effort to build a manned International Space Station end too? In cost and justification, it's as dubious as the shuttle. The two programs are each other's mirror images. The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced. Three crew members—Expedition Six, in NASA argot—remain aloft on the space station. Probably a Russian rocket will need to go up to bring them home. The wisdom of replacing them seems dubious at best. This second shuttle loss means NASA must be completely restructured—if not abolished and replaced with a new agency with a new mission.
UPDATE: Bush to propose $500 million more for NASA
LILEKS on manned vs. unmanned space flight
The rest of the day I listened to the radio. NPR had an interview with one of those people who think we should not send people into space, but rely entirely on robots. As I pulled into the parking lot at the mall he casually asked “what can a man do on Mars that a robot cannot?”
PLANT A ******* FLAG ON THE PLANET, I shouted at the radio. Pardon my language. But. On a day when seven brave people died while fulfilling their brightest ambitions, this was the wrong day to suggest we all stay tethered to the dirt until the sun grows cold. Are we less than the men who left safe harbors and shouldered through cold oceans? After all, they sailed into the void; we can look up at the night sky and point at where we want to go. There: that bright white orb. We’re going. There: that red coal burning on the horizon. We’re going. And we’re not sending smart toys on our behalf - we’re sending human beings, and one of them will put his boot on the sand and bring the number of worlds we’ve visited to three. And when he plants the flag he will use flesh and sinew and blood and bone to drive it into the ground. His heartbeat will hammer in his ears; his mind will spin a kaleidoscopic medley of all the things he’d thought he’d think at this moment, and he'll grin: I had it wrong. I had no idea what it would truly be like. He’d imagined this moment as oddly private; he'd thought of himself, the red land, the flag in his hand, and he heard music, as though the moment would be fully scored when it happened. But there isn't any music; there's the sound of his breath and the thrum of his pulse. It seems like everyone who ever lived is standing behind him at the other end of a vast dark auditorium, waiting for the flag to stand on the ground of Mars. Then he will say something. He might stumble on a word or two, because he’s only human.
But look what humans have done. Again.