The Magazine

Redeeming Columbia

It's time for a mission commensurate with the risks.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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THE REMEMBRANCES of the Columbia astronauts were deeply moving, dignified in their restraint. The president's eulogy at the Johnson Space Center recalled each of them individually, gave the simple reassurance that "America's space program will go on," and modestly offered the "respect and gratitude of the people of the United States."

The mood of grief felt so keenly upon hearing the news passed far more quickly than one would have expected--and far more quickly than it did after the Challenger accident. Of course, Challenger was the first fatal inflight accident in the history of the American space program--the kind of thing you might imagine but are never quite prepared for. Challenger was accompanied by feelings of unreality. Columbia was accompanied by feelings of sad déjà vu, rather crudely captured by the Newsweek headline "Not Again."

There was, however, a deeper, subtler reason that the sorrow was somewhat muted, even mitigated. The Columbia astronauts died on their way back, not on their way there. The unstated theme of the president's memorial address was that these people had fulfilled their dream, and died doing it. Not died trying to do it, on the way to doing it, failing to do it. Columbia died coming home. Death here had an Odyssean quality, and thus a hint of redemption. President Reagan's eulogy for the Challenger astronauts spoke of having "slipped the surly bonds of Earth." Challenger had the additional tragedy of never having done so.

In the longer run, however, a nagging realization will temper the redemptive sense of a mission nearly accomplished. The Columbia astronauts, as President Bush pointed out, were only minutes away from home. But what did the rest of the trip amount to? That, it seems to me, is the deepest part of this tragedy: the waste. For, whatever the joy felt by the astronauts during their 16 days aloft, one has to ask what they were doing up there in the first place, or more precisely, what we were doing sending them up in such a fragile vehicle on such a hazardous journey?

It turns out that their 16-day mission was spent conducting scientific experiments, most of which are relatively trivial, and many of which could have been done either on the space station or by unmanned spacecraft. That's all Columbia did, or could do (with the notable exception of repairing Hubble). That, and running cargo to and from the space station, is all any of the shuttles do. And, as we now realize, at astonishing peril. Challenger at first, and now Columbia, are stirring us to finally face the central truth about our current manned space program: the enormous imbalance between risk and reward.

The most difficult part of space travel is the first 150 miles escaping gravity and navigating the atmosphere. Beyond that, space travel gets relatively easy. And it is also beyond that that space travel gets glorious--and interesting. Once you escape the atmosphere, you no longer have to fight the heat and friction and gravitational stresses that can tear spacecraft to pieces. You no longer need absolute precision to balance all the forces necessary to keep catastrophe at bay. An astronaut who had flown on three shuttle missions averred in a post-Columbia interview that on every flight he was terrified on takeoff, apprehensive on landing, but calm and relaxed in space. And yet, since Apollo, we have inexplicably reduced the entire manned space program to endlessly traversing the most terror-inducing, and yet most scientifically and spiritually mundane, part of space.

Within hours of Columbia's crash, the first recourse of critics was to pin the tragedy on inadequate funding. This is probably right, but how could the funding ever be adequate for such a program? It is hugely expensive--in large part to cover minimal safety requirements--and yet has no appeal to the popular imagination. And popular imagination determines how much of the country's resources go to projects that are at root romantic rather than utilitarian.

No one had ever heard of Columbia or its crew before the disaster. That is not a failure of the popular imagination. That is a failure of those--politicians and scientists--who have reduced the manned space program to spinning around in zero gravity in a space station, and sending a space truck (a beautiful and complicated one to be sure, but a truck, nonetheless) back and forth to service it.

This is an enormous risk for very little payoff. As I wrote in these pages three years ago ("On to Mars," Jan. 31, 2000), the entire shuttle/station idea was a wrong turn. The space station, for all of its beauty, is a failure. It does not serve as a waystation and landing base on the way to the Moon and Mars--as it was originally envisioned a generation ago. No one even pretends that it is doing serious science. Under the Clinton administration it metamorphosed into yet another project in "interdependence," yet another institution to foster cooperative activity with the Russians and the Europeans.

Well, there's nothing wrong with cooperative activity with the Russians and the Europeans (in moderation), but not at the absurd cost of the space station and the absurd risk of the space shuttle.

What to do? Should we shut them down completely? No. There's too much already invested. And we do have contractual obligations to the other countries that signed up in good faith for the station. But not a penny more for its expansion. We should do just enough to sustain it with its three-astronaut crew, the minimum required to keep it going. We should forget about expanding it to house the seven astronauts and the larger living space that were originally intended. Keep it alive for the next few years. And send the shuttle up just for changes of crew, which would require no more than two or three trips a year. We can use unmanned Russian vehicles for cargo. Why risk seven human lives to lug stuff?

Right now, the shuttle is our only vehicle for getting humans into space, and the space station is their only destination. For now, keep them on life support. We dare not let them die completely lest we lose for decades the will to do anything at all in space. But a radically toned down shuttle and space station program should be a holding action as we prepare for a return to our true destiny: leaving Earth, not spinning around it. When we take the risk of sending people through that first 150 miles of terror, of killing atmosphere and gravity, it should be worth it. It should be for going farther and deeper into the glory regions. It should be for the great journeys: returning to the Moon, establishing a permanent lunar presence, and sending a human expedition to Mars.

What most people don't realize is that today these things are doable. It makes a lot more sense than low Earth orbit, which is the limit of the horizon for both the shuttle and the space station. Low Earth orbit, after all, is a desert. There's nothing there. It's literally a vacuum. You have to support everything by hauling it up and bringing it back. On the Moon and on Mars you can live off the land. There's limited gravity to anchor you. There's soil. And most blessedly, there's water, which is the stuff of both life and power: oxygen for life support, hydrogen for propellant. All the necessities can be pre-positioned by machines sent ahead so that the humans can travel light. And when you get there, you can build things, mine things, find things, perhaps even grow things--at first a base, then a habitat, and then ultimately a civilization.

FEBRUARY 2003 is not the time for a president to propose such a vast new enterprise. We have just watched our current space technology fall to Earth. Moreover, we are in economic hard times. We are in the midst of war. We have terrestrial dangers that call upon us right now. But this moment will pass. And when it does, it will be time for real leadership to point us, as John Kennedy did, upward and outward.

To glory. That, in the end, was Kennedy's purpose. That, in the end, is the only purpose that will sustain popular support for space. Yes, then as now, there will be the usual chorus pointing out that we have problems on Earth that demand our attention and resources before we go adventuring. But this complaint is disingenuous: These problems, being perennial, are a perennial excuse for going nowhere, for dreaming nothing.

The real objection comes from those who simply can't understand why we need to venture into the void in the first place. The cheap, disgraceful answer to such an objection is to dangle Tang and Teflon and tout the great spinoffs. That misses the point and, by the way, misrepresents the facts. There's not a crystal we will ever grow in space--no matter how perfect--that will ever justify the billions of dollars and the dozens of lives it will have cost. At this point in human history it is no more practical to go into space than it was for the Wright brothers to zip around Kitty Hawk. The plain fact is that we are not doing this for the utility but for the romance.

And that is reason enough. You and I are the improbable winners of the most miraculous intergenerational lottery: After uncounted generations of human beings, we have the unique privilege of living in a time when man has the capacity to travel to other worlds. Anyone who can remain unhumbled by the majesty of the enterprise, dead to the transcendent promise of his own time, should have his citizenship in the twenty-first century revoked. The rest of us need to get to work--on a new space program, revised, revived, and back on course.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.