Legacy for Columbia's magnificent seven

Posted: Feb 06, 2003 12:00 AM
All the news today, this day, is of Iraq and Colin Powell's eloquent and overwhelming presentation yesterday as to the reasons impelling us to war against Saddam. We may have to do an Osirak-type strike on North Korean nuclear facilities as well. Huge missions ahead, and crucial. Yet, lest we too-quickly forget a third mission of equal importance confronting us, this is a column about Columbia, space and manned space flight. The awful events of Saturday generated reflections spanning a career of reading and writing about space - its compelling fascination, the space program's abundant failures and soaring joys - for nearly four decades. The mind went back.... To pulpy science fiction, to Sputnik, to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. To the deaths of Gus Grissom and others on the launch pad for Apollo 1. To Frank Borman's lunar-orbit Christmas readings aboard Apollo 8. To Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin striding the moon at last during Apollo 11, only to be followed by the harrowing flight of Apollo 13. To the four subsequent lunar landings, which totaled six. And then on to Skylab and Soyuz and the 113 shuttle missions - with, along the way, the wrenching losses of Challenger and now Columbia. America has conducted 144 manned space flights. Most, almost unbelievably, have succeeded. All the while, the nation's manned space effort has been a blend of the highest motivation and professionalism, and the best science, combined with incompetence, even fraud, chronic underfunding, politics and insufficient national commitment - plus faulty o-rings, poorly soldered joints and persisting problems with a Rube-Goldberg concept of foam, heat-shield tiles and glue. And so with investigations under way, with blame and recrimination sure to come, the blinkered Cassandras return to the battlements to shout enough is enough, 14 lost on two shuttles is too many, and of what conceivable use is manned space flight anyway? As a nation, we have been here before - most notably following Apollo 17 (the last manned lunar flight) - and alas the nitwit detractors carried the day. Instead of manned lunar colonies, instead of a manned grand tour of the solar system, they gave us blind shots carrying plaques with a humanoid outline and stilted, oleaginous statements as to our caring nature and our cosmic location. They gave us oh-so-meaningful PC handshakes with the Soviets. They gave us orbiting labs for experiments on spiders. Oh, and they gave us the shuttle - a sort of lowest-bidder bus designed to operate in near-Earth orbit, the realm of perhaps the greatest spatial danger. The fundamental error was made following Apollo - when, having reached the moon, a jaded nation resolved to stay, if not earthbound, then certainly closer to home. With better thinking then, and clearer vision, and more courage - and heightened awareness of man's manifest destiny to reach beyond the beyond - we would be residing 24/7 on the moon (among other things, mining its abundant helium-3 to meet our earthly energy needs) and possibly colonizing Mars. Despite a recorded history of human interest in the cosmos going back at least to the flat-Earth concepts of the Babylonians and the Chinese, America pulled inward and downward. It is not a stretch to say that that decision gave us, finally, the loss of Columbia and The Seven. That does not mean we would not have had other failures and human losses, anymore than it means we will not certainly experience them along whatever spatial path we follow. Failure and loss are concomitants of pushing the envelope, of cutting-edge exploration, of probing the frontier. Perfect safety lies only in not making the trip. As so often will be found in these columns, some quotes about the essential motives of human exploration.... Seneca, 2,000 years ago: "Courage leads starward." Bishop John Wilkins, in "Mathematicall Magick" (1648): "There are several ways whereby this flying in the air hath been or may be attempted. Two of them by the strength of other things and two of them by their own strength: (1) by spirits or angels; (2) by the help of fowls; (3) by wings fastened immediately to the body; (4) by a flying chariot." Walt Whitman: "Ah, who shall soothe these feverish children? Who justify these restless explorations?" Astronaut John Young, aboard the next-to-last Apollo 16 - on which practically everything went wrong - in response to earthbound sophisticates bored with the human conquest of space (1972): "It's inconceivable to me that we're going to be cop-outs." President Bush Saturday, hours after the disintegration of Columbia: "While we grieve the loss of these astronauts, the cause in which they died will continue." Homer Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, this week: "The result (of manned space flight) has been stunning technological achievement not only in aerospace, but also in medical technology, communications, energy and other diverse fields that sustain our civilization. We delete human space flight at the risk of stifling a major factor in technological innovation. It's a subtle concept, but that doesn't mean it's not important. If human space flight fails, technology fails. And if technology fails, the country fails." Evelyn Husband, wife of Colonel Rick Husband, Columbia's commander, reading a statement from all the astronauts' families Monday: "Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on for the benefit of our children - and yours." The shuttle is the equivalent of a 35-year-old Buick: We need a space plane. More, we need extraterrestrial colonies - notably on the moon, there for launches farther within the solar system, and farther still. Most of all, we need revived vision and commitment and courage - and funding - for manned space flight unbound to mere Earth orbit. Let all that be not only the epitaph for Columbia's Magnificent Seven, but also their legacy.