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.