A spacecraft is a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there--a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind. The spacecraft rises toward the heavens exactly as, in our finest moments as a nation, our hearts have risen toward justice and principle. And when, for no clear reason, the vessel crumbles, as it did in 1986 with Challenger and last week with Columbia, we falsely think the promise of America goes with it.
Unfortunately, the core problem that lay at the heart of the Challenger tragedy applies to the Columbia tragedy as well. That core problem is the space shuttle itself. For 20 years, the American space program has been wedded to a space-shuttle system that is too expensive, too risky, too big for most of the ways it is used, with budgets that suck up funds that could be invested in a modern system that would make space flight cheaper and safer. The space shuttle is impressive in technical terms, but in financial terms and safety terms no project has done more harm to space exploration. With hundreds of launches to date, the American and Russian manned space programs have suffered just three fatal losses in flight--and two were space-shuttle calamities. This simply must be the end of the program.
WILL THE MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE EFFORT TO BUILD A MANNED INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION END TOO? In cost and justification, it's as dubious as the shuttle. The two programs are each other's mirror images. The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced. Three crew members--Expedition Six, in NASA argot--remain aloft on the space station. Probably a Russian rocket will need to go up to bring them home. The wisdom of replacing them seems dubious at best. This second shuttle loss means NASA must be completely restructured--if not abolished and replaced with a new agency with a new mission.
WHY DID NASA STICK WITH THE SPACE SHUTTLE SO LONG? Though the space shuttle is viewed as futuristic, its design is three decades old. The shuttle's main engines, first tested in the late 1970s, use hundreds more moving parts than do new rocket-motor designs. The fragile heat-dissipating tiles were designed before breakthroughs in materials science. Until recently, the flight-deck computers on the space shuttle used old 8086 chips from the early 1980s, the sort of pre-Pentium electronics no self-respecting teenager would dream of using for a video game.