Saturday, August 30, 2003

Let’s face it. The thrill is gone and with it the support and enthusiasm that made winging off into outer space the great adventure that enthralled Americans throughout the 1960s and 1970s and turned young men and later women into ticker-tape national heroes — the successors to the Charles Lindberghs and Chuck Yeagers and Amelia Earharts of earlier generations.

That’s obviously the underlying cause of the disaster that brought down the Shuttle Columbia and took the lives of its seven astronauts earlier this year. It is also clear if not boldly stated in the national commissions scathing report on the incident that we as Americans must share the blame with those directly responsible at NASA.

Since the last moon landing, our national attention has turned gradually away from stellar concerns and back to the earthly variety, including conquest, slaughter, famine and death. Only when tragedy struck has much more than passing notice been taken of such things as shuttle trips and satellite launchings and space-station construction. Terrorism and war and health-care costs and the stock market and thousands of other problems have stolen our attention from the vast beyond.

To win it back and the funds necessary to perpetuate the legacy of achievement, space authorities have been forced to engage in one gimmick after another. They put the aging all-American boy, John Glenn, back in space and gave a ride to one of his fellow senators, Jake Garn, and they sent laymen of all varieties into the void and talked of eventually landing men on Mars.

Those of us working in the nation’s newsrooms that Sunday in 1957 were electrified by the announcement that the Russians had put a satellite called Sputnik in orbit. So it is rather unbelievable that a state of affairs such as the present could develop. Space, after all, was the last frontier and one that would last forever, and we followed every detail of the great race to the moon launched by John F. Kennedy through its stirring conclusion in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took that big step for mankind.

But few things will take the edge off adventure like routine, almost monotonous success. As callous as it may sound, a large part of the glamour was in the potential for disaster, and NASA appeared to have eliminated that, even after an earlier shuttle demise that refocused our attention. Dozens of trips took place afterward without incident, convincing us that everything was all right again and we were back to “ho hum.”

What really was happening, however, at NASA was something entirely different. The budgetary pressures and a seemingly ill-defined mission cost the agency its edge and allowed a bureaucracy of classic definition to stifle an enterprise requiring the utmost precision and instant decisions. Cuts were made and schedules altered when they should not have been. The cover-your-behind culture, according to the report, supplanted the need for constant questioning, self-examination and challenges. People were afraid to speak up when they should have because of the fear of being ridiculed. How extraordinarily damning is that?

So badly fouled by this mentality has the process become, the report makes clear, that the simple task of taking a picture in orbit of the possible damage to the Columbia was never accomplished because of an unbelievable scenario of ineptness and concern about such things as proper channels and who made the request to whom. Had that picture been taken and not canceled by the mission’s controlling authority, there was a possibility that the damage that caused the shuttle and its crew to burn up on re-entry could have been repaired.

Where does this leave the once-glorious space program that was the pride of scientific achievement in the American Century? Should we seek to do less, given the budgetary restraints and needs of our Earth-bound citizens? The answer is one the president and the Congress will have to address quickly. This much seems certain. This country is in space to stay. The benefits are too important to the future of the planet to abandon the legacy of all those astronauts and their predecessors who risked their lives in the early days to open the way.

This report makes clear that NASA cannot continue as it is now. The lack of communication between its various parts and the red tape that has been strangling its programs must be eliminated. Perhaps a smaller, more defined and concentrated agency is the real solution. It is clear that the shuttle, as we know it, is probably a thing of the past. We should use this tragedy to prevent others and to move forward.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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