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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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.