Lost in space

After burying the brave astronauts from the Columbia, the refrain from our president, NASA and heroes such as Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn continues to be, "We must move forward." Indeed, even the grieving family members of the dead astronauts were hauled before the TV cameras to assure us that to stop manned space flights would mean their loved ones had died in vain.

But there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness, and NASA seems to have crossed it. If this is the case, then we must worry about the brave men and women whose lives will be placed in danger on future shuttles.

Before you get the wrong idea, I am not one of those flat-earth folks. I have been in awe of the wonder of space travel from the time I made my first visit to the Fels Planetarium as a schoolboy. I am also not one of those people who believes that our money for the space program could be better spent on little red schoolhouses here on earth.

But even before NASA figures out what went wrong with Columbia in the skies over Texas, the facts are abundantly clear: The shuttle system is wasteful in terms of human lives and money.

If you believe that odds tell a story, then let me give you one that has not gotten nearly enough attention in the days since Columbia broke apart 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at the space center in Florida. The odds are one in 75 of a space shuttle ending in disaster. As any gambler will tell you, those are not good enough odds on which to gamble the precious lives of our best and our brightest, whom we send into these capsules.

Greg Easterbrook writes on space and environmental matters for Time magazine. He is my favorite source for meaningful information on such matters because, unlike a lot of his colleagues, he does not have an ideological ax to grind. He is almost alone in being scrupulously fair on President Bush’s record on the environment, which is often distorted by the mainstream media. Easterbrook comes to the discussion on the future of space travel with a record of having warned of the potential of rocket-booster failure five years before Challenger exploded on liftoff before the eyes of a stunned nation.

Easterbrook points out that the space shuttle was a poor idea from the beginning. It is the product of the unholy alliance between NASA and the giants of the space industry, Lockheed and Boeing. The shuttle is too big, too costly and too dangerous for too little payoff. But its very costliness is what recommends it to NASA and the space industry.

NASA gets its justification for a bigger budget while the space industry gets the payoff in profits. This is not some harebrained conspiracy theory. There is no conspiracy to endanger the lives of astronauts. But money corrupts the process and hinders clear thinking. Money provides its own rationalization and justifies itself.

The cost in both lives and money might be justified if such flights must necessarily involve humans at the controls. Perhaps at some early juncture, manned space flights made sense as we learned about the effects of space travel on human life and translated those effects into helping lives here on this planet. But surely such justification has long since passed its usefulness. These shuttle flights have become repetitive. The payoff has become smaller and smaller.

One experiment being conducted on Columbia was sponsored by a commercial fragrance manufacturer who wanted to find out the effects of weightlessness on the scent of flowers. The shuttle became a way of parading NASA’s brilliance and the diversity of the space travelers. The projects of schoolchildren were part of the propaganda for shuttle flights. My admiration for Aldrin and the other astronauts is second to none, but on Meet the Press even after the tragedy, he showed he still doesn’t get it when he predicted that in the next 10 years civilians would be involved in space travel. Buzz, we’re not talking a cruise to the Bahamas here.

There is an undeniable need in humans to explore. That is why there will always be a role for humans in space travel. But for the mundane experiments that were going on inside the Columbia before it became a fireball, there are robots and lab animals to do the job. After the data is collected from these experiments, Easterbrook writes that safer space planes can be developed.

The best legacy for those who lost their lives in the Columbia tragedy is to junk the manned flights in the space shuttle and make sure no other brave lives are lost. The best way to ensure a viable space program is to make it more cost-effective and protect it from the critics who see no value in exploring outer space.

The odds — one in 75 — demand no less.