Rethink space program before relaunch

February 07, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - It's hard to imagine an America that has stopped putting humans into space, but let's try.

The Columbia tragedy serves to remind even the biggest boosters of space travel, as I have been in the past, of how much the space shuttle program is a relic of Cold War politics and technology.

Most of the national debate that the Columbia disaster has ignited in the media and among politicians has been polarized between two alternatives: scrap manned missions or continue the space shuttle and international space station programs, once NASA fixes whatever went wrong this time.

Here's a better alternative: Let's start over. Let's rethink why we want to go into space and not just whether but also precisely how and when the risks of manned flights are worth the rewards of what we want to accomplish there.

Most Americans seem to be quite keen on resuming the space shuttle program, not just because of its technological promise but also because of the inspirational uplift that space exploration gives to our national spirits.

Tang, Teflon and other great astronaut-era scientific advances do not, by themselves, begin to explain why the Air and Space Museum in Washington is the nation's most visited museum, even on Christmas and Thanksgiving Day.

To watch the visitors at that museum, as I have many times, is to be reminded in a dramatic way of how much our fundamental human impulse to dream and to explore rises at liftoff and roars into the heavens right along with those fiery boosters.

Space travel binds us together as a nation and touches our secret hope that there is something better waiting for us out there in the unknown, something that we can reach with courage, determination and focused brainpower.

The conventional wisdom holds that the public and, therefore, politicians are not nearly as captivated by unmanned missions as those led by astronauts. Yet the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 attracted a huge amount of attention from people eager to see the spectacular images the craft sent back from the surface of the Red Planet.

The shuttle is basically a holdover from the Cold War when we were still racing people into space to outdo the Russians.

"The shuttle's main engines, first tested in the late 1970s, use hundreds more moving parts than do new rocket-motor designs," writes shuttle critic Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor of The New Republic and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Time magazine.

"The fragile heat-dissipating tiles were designed before breakthroughs in materials science. Until recently, the flight-deck computers on the space shuttle used old 8086 chips from the early 1980s."

He's not alone. It's time to listen with new ears to the shuttle program's many other critics inside and outside NASA. Hovering over the post-Columbia controversies are the unanswered questions about what precisely we want to do in space, now that we no longer have to prove anything to the Russians or, for that matter, to ourselves.

Space experts from industry and academia need to huddle with Congress and NASA officials to decide the future direction of the U.S. mission in space. Ultimately, President Bush will have to decide where we go from here, at least in the short term, in much the way John F. Kennedy set the moon as America's goal by the end of the '60s.

Significantly, new White House tapes released by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum reveal that JFK privately told then-NASA Administrator James Webb in 1962 that the space race was "important for political reasons" and that "everything we do should be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians."

"Otherwise, we shouldn't be spending this kind of money," Mr. Kennedy commented, "because I am not that interested in space."

With that in mind, the best way Americans can honor those who died on Challenger and Columbia is to ask ourselves why we are still interested in space. After we've figured out what we're trying to do there, then we can determine whether and when astronauts will provide the best way to do it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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