Still Reaching For The Stars

Ever rise quickly from the couch to get something from the kitchen and suddenly feel dizzy?"--From the "Space Research and You" Web page for NASA's STS-107 mission.

Everyone has, which is probably why NASA chose that taxpayer-friendly example to introduce an experiment by Michael Delp of Texas A&M University on how weightlessness affects the blood vessels of rats. Delp's project was part of the Fundamental Rodent Experiments Supporting Health (FRESH) payload, which consisted of 13 rats housed in three Animal Enclosure Modules in the cargo bay of Columbia. There is no reason to question the scientific validity of this work, one of 80-plus experiments carried aboard the mission, and NASA believes the results could be important for astronauts spending long periods in orbit. What that means, though, is that this was space research done for the purpose of doing more space research. For years, backers of scientific work that happens not to involve spaceflight--noting the roughly $500 million cost of a shuttle mission--have questioned how much money should be expended on manned projects such as this. In the wake of last week's tragedy, the country was beginning to wonder: how many lives should be risked on it?

The answer is that more lives will indeed be risked, because America's space program is wedded to the space shuttle for the indefinite future. Constrained by budget problems, NASA last fall put plans for a second-generation shuttle on hold, proposing instead to keep the current fleet in service until 2015. That schedule might have to be rethought now that the fleet is down to just three (Atlantis, Endeavour, Discovery) of the original five vehicles. But in the short run the shuttle has to keep flying no matter what, to bring people and gear to and from the International Space Station.

No one wants to see another shuttle flight take off until the problem that caused Saturday's disaster is identified and fixed. But no one knows how long that might take, either; the only precedent is the Challenger accident, which took 32 months to resolve. "There's going to be a certain amount of pressure to come up with the necessary fix quickly," says Rep. Dave Weldon, the Florida Republican whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center. "We have a station in orbit. We have a crew in the station. We can't just ground the fleet for two years."

But the tragedy is likely to bring on a long-overdue debate about the future of the manned space program, which has never recaptured the sense of mission that carried it to the moon more than 33 years ago. Over the years, projects--a manned flight to Mars, a permanent lunar base--have come and gone with nothing but empty budget lines to show for them. Still, the shuttle has kept flying. Its original function as a reusable platform for satellite launches was mostly abandoned after the Challenger explosion in 1986; the same vehicle in which astronauts trusted their lives was deemed too risky for a satellite whose function was to beam TV programs around the world. More and more, critics have suggested that the shuttle program was kept alive by NASA's political clout, by the old-flyboy network of test pilots and fighter jocks and, since 1993, by America's commitment to its foreign partners in the space-station project. The loss of Columbia, says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, "is a slap across the face that reminds us that this program has, aside from the costs, very significant risks. For the second time in 17 years we have had dramatic proof of those risks. Is it worth it?"

Many people still think it is, of course. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson--who as a congressman actually flew on Columbia in 1986, just weeks before the Challenger explosion--was quick to rally to one of his home state's major industries. "Americans are explorers and adventurers by nature," he said. "We never want to give that up." But the Bush administration seems less enamored of the romance of spaceflight, appointing a new administrator of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, whose last job was at the Office of Management and Budget; his predecessor, Dan Goldin, had a space background. One of O'Keefe's first targets was the soaring cost of the space station. In 2001 the United States unilaterally imposed a significant downsizing of the project (under the euphemism "core complete"), which meant cutting the final crew size from six to three and severely curtailing its scientific usefulness. And as spaceflight loses funding, it attracts fewer top engineers; a report by the General Accounting Office, released just days before the disaster, warned of an aging work force and a shrinking pipeline of talent. Michael Wiskerchen, associate director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and an old NASA hand, told NEWSWEEK that he suspects the Columbia disaster will eventually be traced back to NASA's "very serious human-capital problem. This has everything to do with money, and the time and schedule pressures on NASA, and the drive to privatize. This tragedy occurred at a time when NASA is being asked to drop people and hire even more outside contractors."

Even as many of the military's top pilots sacrifice their careers in the armed forces to go into the astronaut program, the defense establishment has largely lost interest in manned spaceflight. The need for "space control" is often heard in Pentagon corridors these days, especially in reference to the missile-defense system. But it doesn't mean sending troops there; anything the military wants to do in space can be done better by unmanned spy, communications and, potentially, armed satellites.

And it's not only the military that has grown disillusioned with manned spacecraft. Most space researchers believe that unmanned space vehicles, which can fly anywhere in the solar system, can accomplish more scientific research than any number of shuttle flights, or a space station confined to a low Earth orbit. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has four launches planned this year--including two Mars Rover missions and telescopes that will measure infrared and ultraviolet radiation--and even if they don't all work as planned, they won't cost anywhere near the $6.2 billion NASA had budgeted for human spaceflight. And it's certain that no one will die aboard them. As the nation looks ahead to an uncertain future, which holds the prospect of more than enough casualties here on Earth, that's something to think about.

1962: JOHN GLENN IN SPACE The first American to orbit the Earth, he circles three times in five hours and becomes a national hero.

1967: FIRST DISASTER A fire caused by faulty wiring claims three astronauts' lives on the launch pad during a test.

1969: ONE GIANT LEAP The first manned spaceship to shoot for the moon arrives. For a generation of TV viewers, the moonwalk becomes a cultural touchstone.

1970: APOLLO 13 After an oxygen tank explodes, the crippled craft returns home, its mission incomplete.

1981: COLUMBIA RISES NASA launches the first space shuttle. Even after 164 tiles are damaged at liftoff, it returns safely. It will fly 27 more missions.

1986: THE CHALLENGER Millions watch as the ship bursts into flame just 73 seconds after liftoff, killing seven astronauts, including the first teacher in space. A leaky rocket is to blame.

1997: RED ROVER The Pathfinder makes a rough landing on Mars. Its rover survives intact, sending the first images from the surface, but later attempts fails.

2000: HOME IN SPACE The International Space Station's first crew moves in. Man's sole permanent presence in the heavens, the station is still under major construction.