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February 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Composite Image of the STS-107 crew, launch and American flag
Above:
Columbia Space Shuttle Mission STS-107 Crew: Payload Specialist Michael P. Anderson (second flight), Commander Rick D. Husband (second flight), Mission Specialist Laurel B. Clark (first flight), Pilot William C. McCool (first flight), Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel (first flight), Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla (second flight), Mission Specialist David M. Brown (first flight)

A Few Voices: Columbia and the Way Ahead -

Every SF and Space Site on the web has a feature about the Columbia disaster, but I wanted to get some folks with different views together and see what they thought about what we should hope for to come out of it, or what we should be working towards for the future. Allen, because he's steeped in space lore and his writing shows a real understanding of the nuts and bolts, Elizabeth because she approaches space from the viewpoint of humans rather than the machines they ride to get there, and Michael...well, because I never quite know what to expect from him, but it's always worth listening to.

Allen Steele - Elizabeth Moon - Michael Swanwick - Statesmen of Space

Allen Steele Not a program, but a frontier

As irony would have it, I was in the SF section of a bookstore when I heard on National Public Radio that the "Columbia" had been destroyed. My immediate thought, oddly enough, was that this was a dramatization of some  sort -- a latter-day "War of the Worlds," minus Orson Welles and the Mercury  Theatre -- until I realized that, no, this was reality of the worst kind. I got in my car and raced home, and turned on CNN just in time to catch the first amateur video footage of the shuttle breaking up over Texas.

In hindsight, it was bound to happen sooner or later. However the investigation of its causes may turn out, the fact remains that "Columbia" was built near 25 years ago, and that quite a few people were aware of its vulnerabilities. Many space advocates, along with the NASA leadership, had been lobbying for funds for the construction of a second-generation spacecraft, yet Congress had procrastinated. And now it's too late; we're stuck with an aging shuttle fleet that's been temporarily grounded.

If the United States is going to remain a spacefaring nation, then we're going to have to take it much more seriously than we have in the recent past. We need to establish long-range objectives, invest in new technologies, and provide funding that isn't merely stable but instead progressive. We need to stop thinking of space as being a "program" but rather as a frontier. We need to stop being complacent. With any luck, the destruction of America's first space shuttle and the loss of its crew will be a turning point. I certainly hope so.

Elizabeth Moon Aspirations

What I hope from any space program (not limiting "space program" to NASA) is that it gets the human race out into space.   If a lot of people didn't think this was a desirable and possible goal, we wouldn't have made it this far.   If a larger segment of the population saw it as a desirable and possible goal, we'd be a lot farther.   For continued and increased investment in space exploration, we need continued and increased popular support--which means understanding what motivates people to be interested in, and supportive of, manned space programs.

As with any exploration, there are two types of problems: discovering how to do it, and getting the financial backing for it.  Explorers are self-motivated; you don't have to bribe natural-born explorers to go into space any more than you have to bribe them to go into caves or up mountains or down to Antarctica.  But they aren't, in modern times, the people who invent and then build all the specialized equipment they need: mountaineers don't make their own ropes, carabiners, crampons, etc.  Test pilots didn't build the planes, not past the very earliest days of flight.   They rely on the technical expertise of a different kind of personality.  Nor are explorers the kind of people who acquire the wealth to put together their own orbiters and space stations, any more than they financed their own round-the-world voyages in the great days of naval exploration.  They need sponsors, governmental or other. 

Exploration--particularly in areas that require a lot of technology--requires a huge flow of resources to make it happen.   Returns are delayed and unpredictable.   Those who support the exploration must find ways to motivate both the engineers who develop the necessary technology and the deep pockets who will fund it. 

What has always motivated human expansion?  Greed and fear.  We may see these as negative motivators, unworthy carrots and sticks for so great an enterprise, but they have sent more explorers, pioneers, colonists around the world than any more noble intention.  The greed may appear as the desire for fame, prestige, wealth, power...or just the desire for a new personal experience.   Fear may be fear of a rival's success, of lost opportunities, of some bad situation (existing or foreseen) in the original setting.   Through many variations on the theme,  people move out of their accustomed ruts either to get something better, or escape something bad. 

So gaining the broad public interest and support for manned space exploration will depend on understanding why people are now interested, what motivates them, and then ensuring that these motivations are included in the planning, that satisfying these motivations is considered a legitimate goal.   If you ask people now supportive of the manned space programs what they want, many if not most want to go into space themselves.  While scientists and politicians may turn up their noses at the thought of 'space tourism', the fact is that there's a market for trips to space.  And it's also a fact that the more individuals go into space, the more interest and support has been raised.  Humans are human-centered; they are interested in what humans are doing.  Send more people into space and more will want to go, and more will support going.

Michael Swanwick something to offend everybody on both sides of the aisle

The space enterprise – by which I mean not just the American program, but those of the Russians, the Europeans, the Chinese, and whoever else wants to play – is the one undeniably glorious enterprise of our otherwise rather drab and mean-spirited times.  It would be a crime against the human spirit to give up on it.

That said, the space shuttle is a cow.  It's too big and too awkward and too prone to blundering into trouble.   A NASA spokesman, responding to criticism, explained that nobody could have examined the shuttle's exterior for potential damage while it was in orbit because it didn't carry the jet backpacks an EVA would have required.  Well, dammit, as any engineer in the world could have told them, it should have carried jet backpacks – and spare tiles, and a really good toolkit for making emergency repairs, as well.  But the NASA administration is so rigid that they won't make allowances for anything other than what they've programmed to happen.  Currently their plan is simply to keep flying the shuttle for at least another decade, though less frequently and with one craft decommissioned for spare parts.

Maybe it's time that the National Air and Space Administration was broken up into smaller competing organizations, the way Bell Telephone was.  A half-dozen baby NASAs competing with each other for the funding and the glory would have the incentive to build the smaller, safer, and more economical spacecraft that the job requires.  It would be an awful mess for years to come.  But since,
seventeen years after the Challenger disaster, NASA hasn't acted on the recommendations made then, the alternative seems to be just more of the same.

Still... not that anybody's ever going to ask me... I'd go tomorrow.


Statesmen of Space
These voices speak with indisputable authority, all serving or having served, on national committees about spaceflight, and one a former NASA engineer.

Greg Bear -  A Planet Caught Between Dreams and Fears Newsday 02/06/03
Jerry Pournelle -
What Do We Do Now? A new debate on reusable spacecraft (www.jerrypournelle.com)
Homer Hickam -
Goodbye to a ‘’Good Old Girl’
(Originally posted in the Wall St. Journal 02/04/03 )
 

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