Shuttle deaths inspire spaceflight rethinking

Risk: Scientific, practical, patriotic and romantic notions blend and clash in the argument over the value of sending humans off the planet.

February 09, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

NASA robots chase tumbling asteroids and speeding comets. They take snapshots on Mars and soar out of the solar system as ambassadors to the stars. They monitor the health of Earth and probe the deepest mysteries of the universe.

All without risking a life.

So the death of seven astronauts on the shuttle Columbia a week ago has renewed an old debate about the value and purpose of sending humans into the hostile environs of space.

Critics say that the costs are hideously high - 14 lives lost in two shuttle accidents since 1981, a rate of one death for every eight flights. As a financial proposition, the shuttle has been a nightmare, too. Taxpayers spent $96,000 per pound to orbit Columbia's research cargo - and critics say the scientific return on investment on research by men and women in space is embarrassingly small.

"There is a NASA that does science, and they are terrific, and we rewrite the textbooks every year," said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist, of the agency's $4 billion unmanned flight program.

"And then there is the NASA that puts men in space, and that has had no discernible impact on any field of science."

Yet man-in-space boosters insist that the price - $7.8 billion, $28 a year per American - is a small one for a noble extension of U.S. "Manifest Destiny."

"This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart," President Bush said at a memorial service for Columbia's crew.

The debate mixes science, patriotism, adventurism, economics and more than a dash of old-fashioned pork-barrel politics: Crew support alone for the agency's International Space Station provides jobs for 100,000 workers in 37 states.

There's little doubt that Americans stand by the manned space program.

Eighty-two percent in a USA Today poll last week said flights should continue despite the Columbia accident.

And about 75 percent of people surveyed by the Orlando Sentinel after the disaster ranked space exploration as "very important" or "somewhat important," a number virtually unchanged from that of the poll it conducted a year ago.

NASA's position is certainly clear.

"We're taking the risk to go into space for valid reasons, and that's to conduct research for science," said shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, even as his engineers groped to find the cause of the Columbia disaster. "That's the return on the investment. It's the research, the exploration."

Science, however, has never been the sole reason for sending humans into space - not even for the president who launched the race to the moon.

"President Kennedy was not too interested in space exploration," said space historian Howard E. McCurdy, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs. Instead, Kennedy was looking for a way to impress and win over governments that had not aligned themselves with either side in the Cold War.

It didn't necessarily have to be a race to the moon, McCurdy said: "It could have been building a city underneath the sea."

But flying to the moon had been the stuff of dreams for hundreds of years, and a moon flight "was a sure way to impress the other peoples of the world," McCurdy said. "The science was an afterthought."

After the moon race was won, the justification for sending people into space changed to research and defense. NASA promoted the shuttle as a reusable spaceship that could lift people and cargo into orbit and do it at a low cost - a hope that proved forlorn.

Military applications

For a time, the military wanted shuttle crews to refuel spy satellites and retrieve film. They also wanted a reconnaissance space station with a crew of 50, McCurdy said.

But the military found cheaper ways to perform those chores with unmanned rockets, electronics and robots.

The only satellite getting shuttle service now is the Hubble Space Telescope. But all sides agree that the Hubble launch and repair missions have provided some of NASA's shining moments.

"If there weren't a servicing capability, almost none of the important science with Hubble would have been possible," said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages Hubble's work.

Astronauts fixed the mirror flaw discovered after Hubble's launch in 1990. Their subsequent visits have kept the observatory alive, and new instruments they installed have improved its performance 100-fold, Beckwith said.

But Hubble is in a category by itself. No one is designing more satellites that require shuttle servicing because it's just too costly, Beckwith said.

Today the shuttle's main function is to help build and supply the International Space Station, which occupied 13 of the last 16 flights.

NASA promoted the station as a world-class scientific laboratory dedicated to microgravity research. But billions of dollars in cost overruns led the Clinton administration, and now the Bush administration, to crack down and demand redesigns and cutbacks.

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