Space program needs new horizons

February 06, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Should I confess that I didn't even know they were up there? When Columbia ripped the clear blue sky with a trail of horrific beauty, I didn't know for a moment whether it was a launch or a landing that had gone so terribly awry.

This was the shuttle program's 113th voyage into space. Count to 113 in baby steps - and space exploration is still in that toddler state - and get barely halfway down my block. But the shuttle had already become routine, a word we use to tempt the gods.

If they had landed safely, there would have been no ticker-tape parade. If they had landed safely, most of us never would have known the names and faces of seven astronauts in bright orange suits who waved exuberantly as they began the final trip of their lives.

But on Saturday morning, tragedy sharpened what routine had dulled.

A generation that remembers Apollo 13 only from the movies was introduced to Kalpana Chawla, a woman who had soared from her roots in India - from a state where girls are so devalued that there are only eight for every 10 boys under 6 - and into space.

Those who only know Neil Armstrong from the history books met Ilan Ramon, the Israeli son of a Holocaust survivor who carried a Torah, another death camp "souvenir," into space.

And those who have nearly forgotten the dreams of a teacher named Christa McAuliffe were introduced to the dreams of Michael Anderson and Rick Husband, of Laurel Clark and David Brown and William McCool, brainy and brave scientists, pilots, doctors - astronauts - who worried less about going into space than about being left behind.

Every one of these people who saw the curve of the Earth recede, who floated weightless, had what we dubbed in such unpoetic but American fashion "the right stuff."

What happens now, as we turn from grieving to questioning? Already with unseemly speed, we are combing for errors in a work with no margin for error.

Was the culprit in the overheated left wheel well? Or in the budget cuts? Were the clues in the excess drag? Or in personnel cuts and in delayed safety upgrades? And, that perennial question, should we be sending humans into space at all?

But while tragedy catches our elusive attention, we have to ask a more basic question: What is the goal, the mission as NASA describes every liftoff, for which we can justify sending eager astronauts on a risky venture?

Forty years ago, JFK claimed space as a new frontier for no more glorious reason than to beat the Russians to the moon. It was Cold War business, but it stoked the imagination.

For too long, the manned and womanned space program has been on a kind of hold. Even while the official description of this doomed mission talked about the "elegant workings of the inner universe," the list of scientific experiments performed on board this ship included more earthly endeavors: from creating perfume to improving the yield of crops, from cell cultures to construction materials.

It included school projects for a 4-H club in California and a science club in Idaho. It listed a project called "Fun With Urine," to see if this "space water" could be made into paint. And it took 15 harvester ants on board for a science class to see how weightlessness affects their kind.

Forgive me if I trivialize the work, but do we want to risk lives for perfume and ants? Theodore Postol, an MIT professor of science technology and national security, may be right when he says that the science being done in space is "either marginal science or not science at all. What they're doing is creating excuses to launch human beings into space."

I believe that every country has room and need for daring, dreaming, adventure. For people like Rick Husband, who grew up with a model plane over his bed. To step back is to lose more than the right stuff. But how odd that the horizons of a space program, of all things, have become narrow. How odd that we don't know where we are going ... in space.

Today they are picking up the pieces, literally across 200 miles of Texas. It will takes months to solve the puzzle of this disaster. It will take more time to rebuild a dream that is worth the risk. What we need now is a mission worthy of the missionaries.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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