TCS Daily

Securing the Future

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The bodies have been found, and the Columbia disaster is now out of the initial phase. NASA has done a good job getting off the mark, with Homeland Security and local law-enforcement officials activated within minutes, and an independent review commission, headed by Admiral Harold W. Gehman, Jr. (who led the Pentagon investigation into the U.S.S. Cole attack) organized and ready to hold its first meeting within 24 hours. "We didn't want to open that envelope," a senior NASA official told me when I talked to him on the phone Sunday afternoon, "but we had the contingency plan and we activated it." It seems to have gone pretty well.

He also observed that "what we're most afraid of are the people who want to help us." What he meant was that NASA has a two-stage process, and they want to keep the stages distinct. Stage one is the engineering process of figuring out what went wrong, and how to fix it. NASA wants to get that done as quickly as possible, and it's doubtful that very many outsiders have the relevant expertise to help, though there will be many people who will want to get involved for various reasons. That's what happened after the Challenger disaster, and the result was that the Shuttle fleet stayed grounded for over two years - most of which was, as another senior NASA official described it, "political time." Nobody wants that to happen again.

I think that's right, though as I've written elsewhere, I don't think that the country will respond to this tragedy the same way it responded to the Challenger explosion. As Mark Steyn wrote in London's Telegraph:

They were an American crew - four men, one black; two women, one born in India. Nonetheless, this will not be as traumatisingly mesmeric as the Challenger disaster. The yellow-ribbon era died with September 11: even if their television networks haven't quite adjusted, Americans are tougher about these things; this is a country at war and one that understands how to absorb losses and setbacks.

I think that's right. And I think that NASA will be allowed to perform its engineering inquiries without too much interference, though there will certainly be a lot of interested onlookers paying close attention.

But that's the first stage. The second stage is one in which the public should take part: the stage in which we decide what to do next. The old Shuttle system was unsustainable anyway - the plans to keep the Shuttle as a mainstay until 2020 were always unrealistic. But now they're impossible, and building a new orbiter, as we did after Challenger, is a silly idea.

The irony is that NASA was already starting to realize this. I was supposed to be in on a teleconference at which NASA would unveil the new budget on Monday morning, February 3d. That was cancelled over the weekend, of course, but the word was that NASA was going to reveal a number of interesting new initiatives designed to wean us off of the Space Shuttle and reestablish the momentum in interplanetary exploration.

Over the next weeks and months, I suppose that these plans will come out anyway. But the public debate should be on how to move ahead with an ambitious space program without committing ourselves to another big, bureaucratic program like the Space Shuttle, which never really took us where we wanted to go. Instead, we need to find ways to unleash the energies of the private sector, and to allow industries like space tourism to play a bigger role. It's capitalism that lowers costs, not government programs.

That won't put NASA out of business, but it's an argument that NASA should go back to its original role (back when it was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and worked on aviation) of doing research and development on technology that wound up, ultimately, being used by the private sector rather than NASA (or NACA) itself.

A twenty-first century NASA should focus on new space launch technologies (including such "breakthrough" technologies as laser launch and scramjets), on interplanetary exploration (which won't have a commercial market for a while) and on other things that the private sector can't do. Those things that the private sector can do, like launching things to low-earth orbit, should be left to the private sector.

I say that the debate will be over how to move ahead, rather than whether to move ahead, because I think that's how most Americans feel. As of Sunday afternoon, the email for my MSNBC site was running hundreds-to-one in favor of going on with an ambitious space program (and I mean literally "one" - I got only one email saying that we should just give up on space and stay home, and it was from a Canadian). As the Christian Science Monitor noted, Americans share

a hope for humans to break free of the material bounds of Earth and discover a better future in the expanse of the universe. That deep desire, like a chick pecking at its shell, goes beyond merely seeking useful spinoffs in technology, military defense, or international cooperation from the billions spent on space research. It's a hope that has served to revive public support for NASA after each disaster, starting with the 1967 Apollo fire, then the 1986 Challenger explosion, and now the loss of seven astronauts on Columbia's reentry to Earth. It's a hope that tolerates the risks of breaking new barriers but one that demands a rigorous investigation when things go wrong - not to end space research but to serve as a course correction for NASA.

I think that's right - I've even used the "cracking the shell metaphor myself. And I think that realization is what's missing from critiques like Gregg Easterbrook's article in Time entitled "The Shuttle Must Be Stopped." The Shuttle may indeed suffer from many of the problems Easterbrook identifies - in fact, I believe that it does, and those problems have been the talk of space enthusiasts for years. But what Easterbrook's critique, and his seeming enthusiasm for letting robots take over space travel entirely, miss is that space exploration is about far more than bringing back knowledge that will enrich the careers of planetary scientists. It's about paving the way for humanity's expansion into the solar system. The Shuttle may not have much of a role to play in that process. But those who criticize it need to understand that, whatever happens to the Shuttle, the process itself must go on.

America is a frontier nation, and leading humanity off this planet and into a space-faring civilization that spans the Solar System (for a start) is our manifest destiny. Americans understand that. The question isn't whether, but how. And the debate promises to be an important one.

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