This column may well run before or after the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Readers should know that editorial page editors choose when and where to run columns that often are written right before a news event. So let me say that my prayers for a safe launch and return are with the Discovery's crew.
But after the shuttle returns safely, NASA and the Bush administration absolutely must re-evaluate the value of the program versus its risks and costs.
I'm keenly aware that much of the modern technology we enjoy today has been a direct result of American efforts in space exploration. I'm not advocating that we abandon these endeavors altogether. But public opinion surveys suggest there is a severe difference of opinion among Americans over how and under what circumstances we should move forward in continuing our nation's efforts to explore outer space.
Beyond that, the hesitance about the coming launch among members of the NASA team responsible for mission safety is alarming. So was the apparent "reassignment" of one such NASA official who was a bit too public in expressing his misgivings about mission safety.
And the billion-dollar price tag that American taxpayers have picked up since the last tragic loss of shuttle and crew raises the biggest issue of all. Do we keep blindly spending mountains of cash on the space shuttle program without any regard for a cost/benefit analysis?
Consider that the fundamental developmental technology on which the shuttle program was initiated was the result of 1970s research and development. Today, the shuttles are referred to as "glass ships" because of the fragile foam tiles that protect them from the extreme heat of re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
Experts still refer to the shuttle as an "experimental craft," one in which the odds of a catastrophic failure -- loss of the shuttle or the crew or both -- are somewhere between one in 60 and one in 100 launches. Would you get on a conveyance of any kind that had one chance in 60 of killing you?
Like many Americans, I'm troubled to see our nation continue to support the launchings of precariously constructed spacecraft, particularly when the shuttle program isn't a strategic component of the United States' long-term goals for space exploration.
And while I anticipate nothing less than a spectacular success in the coming mission, I admit I'll be uneasy from launch to splashdown as our nation once again puts a brave crew inside a patched and re-patched spacecraft that might be of better service in an aerospace museum.
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