Do you flesh and blood you want to go into space? Now that we have a track record that says every 60 or so shuttle missions we can expect a fatal cataclysm? Even if you are “Star Trek” generation or steeped in NASA glory day nostalgia, are you willing to go up and out, and physically explore?
Despite the losses of Challenger and Columbia, my answer comes with no reluctance: Yes. Get me a seat on the next mission.
It’s been “yes” since fourth grade, when I sat in Miss Yoe’s class at James Bowie Elementary School in Midland, Texas, and watched the launch of Alan Shepherd’s Redstone suborbital shot on a black and white TV.
I strongly believe my “yes” is the typical response. I have children who want to go into space. I know young pilots praying for a crack at astronaut status, and the Columbia disaster doesn’t diminish their yearning.
No doubt the “ultimate amusement park ride” facet of spaceflight appeals to 9-year-olds, as it does to 50-year-old multimillionaires buying a shuttle trip from cash-strapped Russia. But it’s never been the ride that’s the deep appeal, it’s the enterprise of reaching from the known to the unknown, and completing that reach by going there ourselves.
Columbia’s crew was a collection of humanity’s finest. The individual accomplishments and capabilities of each astronaut were extraordinary. That’s because it takes extraordinary people to challenge frontiers people with intellect, physical stamina and courage.
Col. Rick Husband, the mission commander, was a test pilot with nearly 4,000 hours in 40 different aircraft. Navy Cmdr. William McCool, the shuttle pilot, was second in his class at Annapolis. Lt. Col. Mike Anderson achieved his childhood dream of spaceflight. Dr. David Brown was an M.D., test pilot and trapeze artist. Dr. Laurel Clark dived with Navy SEALs. Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon was a combat pilot who ran batteries of scientific experiments.
And finally, Kalpana Chawla, a woman described as quiet and modest. Her talents were not modest. She moved to the United States from India in 1982. She tied the American dream to the dream of space travel.
They died going out there. To lose such talent is tragedy, but to kill the enterprise because of the loss infinitely increases the tragedy, for the enterprise is itself what draws, forms and allows the talent to appear and flourish.
The arguments over continuing a manned space program have already started. They are old arguments, but they must be engaged and won again.
I recall a MacNeil-Lehrer program in the summer of 1989, 20 years after the first moon landing. Jim Lehrer’s interview featured novelist James Michener and poet Maya Angelou. Ms. Angelou complained about spending dollars in space vs. addressing problems here at home. Her grievance with space research was a litany of what hasn’t been done to perfect current conditions on the planet. Mr. Michener calmly devastated her argument by pointing out that those who wait for all problems to be solved at home will wait forever. The gist of his argument: If we followed the advice of the Angelous, we would still inhabit caves.
During the debate, it dawned on Ms. Angelou that, at least in this sphere, she was not the progressive.
A more sophisticated argument pits robots against manned spacecraft. Increasingly able artificial intelligence systems mean we can get more out of robotics. Yet full-fledged space exploitation requires humans and human creativity to respond to the unexpected challenge and opportunity.
To follow Mr. Michener’s thought, some day we may need to inhabit space. Robots can’t inhabit the Andromeda galaxy on our behalf.
Perhaps we need a new manned system to replace the shuttle. That’s a debate this new tragedy must spur. However, terminating manned flight programs would be a terrible mistake.
Frontiers attract our species because they are the edge of new possibilities. Space exploration and exploitation are no longer pure dreams. Space is a frontier, perhaps the ultimate frontier. At some point, going out there is the sine qua non of being fully human: to want to know and to need to go.