- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Feb. 21 (UPI) — It is difficult to find any silver lining in the tragic events of the morning of Feb. 1, 2003 and yet, if we were anything less than heirs to the American spirit, it would be more difficult not to.

The news that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated on re-entry shocked most Americans for the simple reason space travel is now almost routine. Few Americans now pay attention to the take-offs, landings and activities of the shuttle or its crews.

There was a time when the names of U.S. astronauts came instantly to the tongue. The first of the Mercury astronauts were bona fide heroes, pioneers in a new field of human endeavour. Americans waited impatiently for word that their missions — and those of the succeeding generations of astronauts — had succeeded, that they were home, that they were safe.

In today's world novelty doesn't last as long.

The last accident of consequence took place 17 years ago and almost killed the shuttle program. This most recent tragedy may have been in part rooted in public disinterest in an adventure that is inherently as dangerous and exciting now as it was when the first manned flights began blasting into space in the '60s.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget hasn't received the enthusiastic support in recent years needed to fund true space exploration; in fact, it was cut during the Clinton years. The crew that boarded Columbia on that last fateful mission trusted their lives to a machine first constructed in the late 1970s and rebuilt several times thereafter. Better, safer launch vehicles have died stillborn on the drawing board for lack of funds.

Few Americans would, today, risk a cross-country drive in an AMC Pacer of the same vintage but we're willing to let our astronauts fly in a vehicle of the same apporximate vintage — and built by the lowest bidder to boot.

The loss of Columbia has put these things back into perspective. The men and women who train for space flights are heroes in the same tradition as those who discovered America in the first place. It was pioneers of similar outlook who fought their way West through a wilderness the size of which they could barely grasp, transforming it into the greatest nation in history.

Their's is the true spirit of America. The astronauts who died on the Columbia are their direct descendants.

Before we let the memory of what happened fade, we must renew the debate on the importance of space flight. We must keep reaching for the stars — as we have been doing since the Kennedy years.

Some will continue to say we ought to abandon the manned space program, calling it too costly and too dangerous, in favor of unmanned missions and robotics. Others will argue, as they have for decades, that we have no business up there anyway and would be better advised to devote ourselves to solving problems down here.

The idea that we ought to confine man to the earth and instead send gadgets and robots off into space is short sighted. Men can do and see things that cameras and robots will never see or feel. Computers are fine, but it was a human footprint on the moon that captured the world's imagination not so many years ago.

There is little question that reaching for the stars has paid dividends back here on earth, but those have been subsidiary benefits resulting from our efforts to accomplish the unimaginably difficult task of escaping the earth and dealing with dangers and challengers our ancestors couldn't begin to comprehend.

It's fine to study our planet and build space stations and launch satellites that make it possible for us to watch more football on television, but let's not forget that the spirit of exploration has more to do with how a nation thinks of itself than what it produces.

The cost and the inherent danger should not keep us from pursuing the heavens. The vision of a future "Moon-city" called Grissom or Columbia or Resnick should drive us forward into the phase of space exploration.

Reaching into space is an investment — maybe the best investment — in the American spirit. What President John F. Kennedy said at Rice University in 1962 is still true today. "But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why … fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the Moon… in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal, will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win."

— Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister, a public affairs firm based in Alexandria, Va., and is a member of the board of the American Conservative Union.

— "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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