Grounding the Space Program

Posted: Aug 29, 2003 12:00 AM

In December of 1972, the last man to visit the moon returned to Earth. A total of 12 men had been there in less than four years. They walked around, collected rocks, and even played golf. But after only a short time, we had apparently accomplished everything we could on the moon. So we pulled the plug on the Apollo moon-shot program.
It’s time to do the same thing with the International Space Station and the space shuttle program.

On Aug. 26, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued a scathing report about what brought the orbiter down last February. The board blamed the accident on NASA’s culture, and warned, “unless the technical, organizational and cultural recommendations made in this report are implemented, little will have been accomplished to lessen the chance that another accident will follow.”

The problem is that as long as there’s a space shuttle and an I.S.S. the NASA culture will never change. The shuttle program was designed to ferry people back and forth into orbit, not to actually take them out into space. The space station was designed to be a destination for the shuttle (as well as Russian spacecraft) and will spend years traveling in a big loop around the planet. It’s created a lot of jobs for Russian scientists and American contractors. But other than that, it’s not accomplishing much.

Still, NASA’s culture is based on sending people up to the station, keeping an eye on them as they spin around the Earth, and bringing them back. The agency has no plans to go any further, to send people to Mars, to Venus, or to the edge of our Solar System.

But that’s what space exploration should be about: Exploring. Going beyond where we’ve been before, and seeing what’s out there. When our politicians give speeches about the space program, they always extol its virtues as an exploratory program. But then they turn around and reauthorize NASA’s programs, which are nothing more than a shuttle system into orbit and back.

We’ve had humans in a space station for years. Before the multi-billion dollar I.S.S. was launched, Russian cosmonauts had been living on the MIR. They survived zero gravity, performed experiments and somehow kept that tuna can up there for 15 years.

And we’ve been lifting people into orbit for even longer than that. There’s little difference between John Glenn’s historic first flight in 1962 and a modern-day space shuttle mission. Glenn was only aloft for a few hours, while the shuttle can orbit for more than a week. But otherwise, they’re about the same. People go up, circle the planet, and come back.

Unless, as in February, something goes horribly wrong. When Columbia exploded, we were reminded that people are risking their lives for our space program. And if we’re going to ask them to do that, we’d better make sure the potential reward is worth the sizable risk.

After the review board’s report was issued, President Bush vowed, “Our journey into space will go on. The work of the crew of the Columbia and the heroic explorers who traveled before them will continue.”

He’s right, of course. Our journey “into” space should continue. Or, rather, it should begin. We should send NASA back to the drawing board, and order it to come up with plans to escape our orbit. Maybe the I.S.S. can somehow be retooled and used as a space-based launching pad. Otherwise it should be abandoned and allowed to come down.

We’ve got a long way to go, and it won’t be easy. Recently, Mars came as close to Earth as it’s ever been. But it was still 34.6 million miles away. To get there, we’d need new types of rockets, new spacecraft, and a new astronaut-training program. It would probably take many years, and cost billions. Still, we should choose to go to Mars, to paraphrase President Kennedy, “not because it is easy, but because it is difficult.”

It’s time to think big. We should be exploring space. But unfortunately we’ll never get out there if all we’re doing is sending people up to the I.S.S. to travel in circles.