written by Alex Moore on February 01, 2003 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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I was sitting in a meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was a cheap hotel: one without internet access or televisions in the conference rooms. As our meeting dragged on, I glanced at my watch. 10:15 AM. Our trip from Pittsburgh had taken four hours and my eyelids were beginning to droop.
Suddenly we heard a knock at the door.
The space shuttle exploded.
What? That happened 17 years ago.
No, no, no. Space shuttle Columbia exploded half an hour ago.
My colleagues were stunned but not shaken. The meeting continued but I could not sit still. I needed to find out exactly what happened. I excused myself and ran around the hotel, frantically looking for a television or a data port or anything… No one I talked to had heard what happened.
I ran outside into the snow and called Brian on my cell. No answer. Jim wasn’t home either. I called my friend, Terry. There was no greeting, only a "what have you heard?" I had more questions than cell phone minutes, so I had to be satisfied with the most basic facts. I had followed the mission since its launch, so I knew a great deal of the mission history. Suddenly it occurred to me that seven human beings were now dead. I kept imagining the triumphant picture of Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and I kept seeing my website post about the mission’s importance. I held back tears as I hung up.
The day went on and I went blindly through it. At lunch I made sure to sit in front of MSNBC. There was little new news and the same video clips replayed on all networks.
Hours later I was back in the car, listening to talk radio. Everything I heard upset me. So many apathetic people, so many pessimistic people, so many stupid people. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote down my jumbled thoughts. Here they are:
The Space Shuttle is a beautiful machine. It can go from Earth to orbit and back, and has successfully done so 111 times out of 113. Yes, better things can be made now, but you can't have the best computer on the market for 2 weeks before it is outdated. Saying the shuttle is garbage is unfair. It is simply old.
The Space Shuttle will be replaced, but not quite yet. Venture Star, the Shuttle replacement that was scrapped at 90% completion, will be revived, or at least partially. There will be NASA "emergency" funding, which will get entirely absorbed by other costs, but I see long-term increases in the budget. There will be some group of people who are "offended by the archaic junk on which we risk seven lives" and Bush could step up and swing. The next JFK? Who knows. With Iraq on his mind, there might not be anything done. But he might use this event to pick up his father's dream to land humans on Mars.
Missions to Mars will not be suspended. The Space Shuttle missions will temporarily be suspended, not the rover missions. Since they don't launch from the Space Shuttle, the rovers won't be delayed. Too much money was spent on them, and quite frankly, there is still enough time for NASA to figure itself out before they launch.
NASA is not lost. Columbia is lost, nothing more. You defeatists need to stop screaming about the end of the space program and remember that there's this thing called the American Way. As Americans, we take a problem and fix it. That's what defines a great country. We don't cover up a mishap like a wart, dismissing it as nonexistent. Look at Germany after the Hindenberg disaster. The Nazis, not wanting to reveal a weakness, conducted no investigation. And remember, the Russians failed literally dozens of launches and landings, one right after another in some cases. If NASA were replaced, it would just mean a name change and a reshuffle of staff. Let's keep things the way they are. It works.
Congress makes NASA suck, not NASA. One of the few points I agree with from Time Magazine's Gregg Easterbrook's article is that Congress is so tied up in its own budget and internal politics that it refuses to fund NASA sufficiently. And the companies that profit tremendously from the Space Shuttle fight to see it remain in action. NASA has said the fleet will remain in operation until 2020. That's downright absurd, but I think there will be a replacement made in the near future.
NASA doesn't suck. They do things we can't even imagine, and they do it almost perfectly. When you make human spaceflight seem "routine," you've accomplished something amazing. Some of the smartest people alive work for NASA, and people who harass the administration need to sit in on one of their meetings.
The 3 astronauts on the ISS are stranded, not dead. We'll get them back, either through another Shuttle mission, in cooperation with Russia, or at last resort, through the abandonment of the station. Let's focus on other things at the moment, like finding out exactly what happened and making plans for a new shuttle.
There was a seventh astronaut. His name was Ilan Ramon. There is a third person in the ISS. We Americans tend to put everything in terms of "number of Americans." Ilan Ramon was the "John Glenn of Israel," and I'm tired of hearing people say six instead of seven. Get it right.
However horrible it sounds, in some way this is helping the space program. Not only will people be turned on to the seriousness and complexity of the space program, but the media will extensively cover this event for weeks to come. I bet the Mars Rovers will get more coverage too. No, I'm not being a cold, heartless, capitalist. I want to see good things come from bad. Good things came out of September 11th, and even that week people said they would.
The seven astronauts on Columbia died having achieved their lifelong goal of going to space. For two astronauts, they were the first representatives of their respective countries. They died a noble death, and have been immortalized as heroes of mankind. But in the words of mission specialist, David Brown's parents, "In the back of his mind, he had a dream to go to Mars. They all did." We can let this disaster devastate human space exploration, or we can honor those astronauts' dreams.
George W Bush will be forever remembered for putting it this way: "The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." We do it not because it easy, but because it is hard.
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