- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

Saturday brought the sad news that the space shuttle Columbia and her crew were lost as they attempted to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. It was the third major loss of life in America's maturing space program the first, an explosion in 1967 during a launch-pad test of the Apollo 1 program; and the second, in 1986, as the space shuttle Challenger exploded during take-off.
On that fateful day in 1986, President Reagan took to the air to console the American public. "We've grown used to wonders in this century," Mr. Reagan said. "It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers."
Americans' feelings of apathy towards the space program continue today, only more so. In 1986, President Reagan sought to comfort the "schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage." With the Columbia disaster this weekend, those words would have rung hollow. These days news of a space shuttle landing or take-off barely garners a mention in the newspaper, much less live television coverage.
It is sad but nonetheless true that space exploration hardly captures Americans as it did two decades ago, and that it takes a disaster to remind many that NASA still exists. Certainly space exploration is between worlds right now, caught between John F. Kennedy's charge to land a man on the moon and Richard Nixon's to do so on Mars. That great leap has been an elusive one, and when expectations exceed progress those results are often overlooked. In July 1997, for example, when the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars, NASA administration Daniel Goldin was asked to name the "single most surprising thing" those first-hand photographs revealed. "The hills," he said. "There are two hills. They're like saddle peaks."
Americans can be forgiven for not having shared in NASA's excitement at the time. But those hills revealed intriguing details about the Martian climate a vast flood plain, for example, where life perhaps once thrived. In the red soil between those two hills lay possible keys to the mystery of life.
But the loss of mystique with respect to space travel also speaks to the vast progress the various programs have made. Astronauts now live in outer space for extended periods of time, conducting valuable, if often overlooked, scientific research. Meanwhile, exploration continues. The Hubble telescope peers farther and farther into the cosmos; progress on a missile shield to protect the world from tyrants continues. There is the International Space Station, in which Russian and American astronauts live for extended periods of time, pushing the human body and mind to its outer limits. In the Columbia mission, Israel teamed with the United States to send its first astronaut into space. In all these instances, what started out as a race between two warring superpowers now serves to unite the world in the spirit of cooperation, to preserve mankind and to ensure its vitality for the future.
Now, no doubt, NASA will face hearings and uncomfortable questions into the possible causes of the Columbia accident. Whatever those inquiries produce, it is unambiguous that NASA has been funded at a level lower than all the program and budget analysts believe is necessary to keep its many project lines going. While NASA's budget authority under President Reagan doubled to $11 billion, over the ensuing 15 years that amount grew by just $3 billion. Now, we're typically not ones for run-away spending, but when it comes to NASA we're prepared to push for more. Indeed, in the absence of any obvious private-sector interest (and it is limited), space exploration is precisely the kind of project our government shouldundertake. Whether this funding shortfall resulted in danger or not we don't know, but it is a costly reminder that when something is done on the cheap, it becomes more vulnerable to mistakes.
But of one thing there is no mistake: Columbia's lost crew reminds us that this is still a world populated with heroes. As Mr. Reagan said of the Challenger crew, "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them … as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.' "

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