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Can we boldly go there any more?

by Jonathan Coopersmith on Feb 7, 2003

Jonathan Coopersmith

Space is dangerous. And, consequently, expensive. That first fact was brought painfully home the morning of Feb. 1 as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The second fact will be relearned in the coming weeks as we emerge from our shock at this tragedy and decide where our space program should go from here. Cost, not risk, may prove the decisive factor.

The loss of Columbia was a visible disaster that should fittingly reignite the debate about the safety of the shuttle and spark a reassessment of NASA’s goals, as well as discussion about the role of human beings in space. In the history of technology, a visible disaster is a failure of a technology in such a public manner that long-standing issues can no longer be ignored.

Sadly, it often takes the loss of life, like that on Feb. 1, to focus attention and resources on problems that many knew about but lacked the political power or will to resolve. International politics is no longer the important factor it was in previous space disasters, and such considerations need not influence the choices we face, which can thus be made on their own merits.

Though any loss of life is tragic, what is impressive about 42 years of human exploration of space is not how many astronauts and cosmonauts have died, but how few. Though there have been several close calls, no one has actually died in space.

Far more people died during the early years of developing airplanes than have died in shuttle accidents. One reason for the lesser mortality among astronauts is that the very high cost of space exploration has meant that only the American and Soviet governments could afford to send people into space. Consequently, manned spacecraft were designed and closely monitored to ensure the crew’s safety. In contrast, almost any good mechanic or engineer could try to build an airplane — and many did, sometimes even successfully.

Unless a rocket explodes at launch and creates a newsworthy image, the loss of a robotic spacecraft rarely receives much attention. Who can remember where they were when Intelsat IVA F-5 failed to reach orbit on Sept. 29, 1977? But, just as most Americans over 50 can remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, most Americans over 30 remember where they were when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff on Jan. 26, 1986.

That’s because astronauts died. And astronauts have always held a special fascination, whether the real ones or the Star Trek characters from the future, just as pilots did in the 1920s and 1930s. They symbolize our hopes of escaping the bonds of earth — not just the physical constraints of nature but also the ills and challenges that are part of the human condition.

And failures are also part of the human condition. After previous failures, NASA created committees to discover why they occurred. These studies changed how NASA operated but did not provoke a larger discussion about goals. The Apollo 204 accident, which killed three astronauts in 1967, occurred during the heyday of the Space Race, and the Challenger explosion occurred only as the shuttle was leaving its experimental status. In both cases, changing the course of the established program was politically unthinkable. The investigation of the Columbia tragedy should turn into a larger debate about the future of NASA and of people in space.

An obvious question is whether Columbia should be replaced. Building a new shuttle would cost about $3 billion. The shuttles were designed in the 1970s. Should NASA develop a more modern spaceplane instead? The cost will, again, be in the billions. For comparison, a 747 passenger plane costs about $150 million. The annual budgets of the Defense Department, NASA, and the National Science Foundation are, respectively, $385 billion, $15 billion, and $5 billion.

The more appropriate question is what should be the role of people in space. Since it successfully landed men on the moon on July 20, 1969, decisively winning the Space Race, NASA’s human space program has been in search of a mission to justify itself. To go boldly where no person has gone before is a stirring and worthy aspiration, but space exploration is extremely expensive. Each shuttle mission costs about $500 million. Most opponents of manned space flight do not object to the goal of people working and living in space but to the great expense. They view those billions of dollars as money that could be more productively and efficiently spent elsewhere. Robotic satellites can do much in space at far less cost than sending people into orbit.

The historical analogies of colonizing the Americas after Columbus and the expansion of aviation are often used to justify human exploration of space. Such analogies fail to take into account the decades needed for technologies to evolve and their costs to drop. Despite government promotion, it took generations of technological evolution before commercial aviation could operate on a large scale. Space exploration may be at the same stage today. Costly, not defective, technology is its most serious challenge.

Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.