News that space shuttle Columbia's astronauts might have been rescued is both haunting and damning to those who care about the exploration of space.
Haunting because it represents the ultimate "might have been," the saddest words ever uttered, says the poet. Damning because it raises fundamental questions about manned space travel. I'll get to those, but first, a recap:
The committee designated to study the Feb. 1 shuttle disaster reported last week that another spacecraft could have been launched on a daring rescue mission had NASA known the extent of the damage to Columbia and acted on it.
Here's the scenario: Ground-based telescopes could have scanned the shuttle for damage and discovered that heat tiles were missing from Columbia's left wing. At that point, the crew goes into emergency mode, rationing its food, water, oxygen and fuel, to extend the flight by days or weeks.
Meanwhile, NASA expedites the Atlantis, next shuttle scheduled to fly. Dramatically, the space agency launches a crew of three or four astronauts, perhaps as early as Feb. 9. They rendezvous with the Columbia and run a pole or tether from the Columbia to the cargo bay of the Atlantis. Two astronauts from Atlantis space-walk to the Columbia and help her astronauts suit up. Three to five space walks later, all the Columbia astronauts would be safely ensconced in the Atlantis for the flight home.
It might have been NASA's finest moment. Images of the rescue would have inspired generations. Instead, we're left with memories of debris searing the skies as the disintegrating Columbia ferries seven astronauts to their deaths.
The loss of the Columbia points to an even greater problem at NASA, however, and that is the problem of maintaining increasing its shuttle fleet long enough to come up with a new generation of space ships. That could take more than a dozen years and will require a long-overdue reassessment of the entire NASA mission. The sickly wet sound you hear is the military industrial complex licking its chops.
The state of manned space travel is worse than most of us realize. Take the case of the three astronauts left stranded aboard the International Space Station following the Columbia disaster. On May 4, the astronauts had to rely on a Soviet Soyuz space capsule to return home. That flight narrowly avoided disaster.
Due to a glitch in the Soyuz guidance system, the spaceship soared to Earth like a ballistic missile, missing the planned landing site by more than 300 miles. The plunge through Earth's atmosphere subjected the formerly weightless Americans and the Russian aboard to eight Gees--eight times the normal pull of earth's gravity--and higher temperatures than expected. The crew experienced breathing difficulties as the G-forces pushed their tongues to the backs of their mouths, obstructing their windpipes. Sixteen minutes before touching down, the Soyuz went silent, prompting some in NASA to fear the worst. After all, it was at the 16-minute mark that Columbia had gone silent. The Soyuz landed and bounced along on its side, crushing its communications antennae. Fortunately it was spotted from the air two hours later. You can bet this near miss, coupled with the Columbia disaster, has Congress, President Bush and others taking a hard look at NASA.
Following the Challenger disaster in 1986, President Reagan and others insisted we bestow meaning on the deaths of the crew by moving forward with the shuttle program. Many uttered similar sentiments just after the Columbia disaster.
But the central question that needs answering is this: Are the missions we've been sending astronauts on worth risking their lives in the first place? Only by honestly facing this question can we give their sacrifice meaning. Before answering, tell me this. After years and months respectively of publicity, can you even say what the missions of the Challenger and the Columbia were? Neither can I. They were something on the order of testing the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies, the sorts of make-work missions on which this nation has squandered half a trillion dollars--and more than a dozen astronauts' lives--over the past 30 years. For the same money, who doubts we could have built a colony on the moon or gone to Mars? Who knows what benefits might have accrued. At the least NASA might have inspired the world the way the first moon landing inspired generations to greater achievement. Remember the words on the plaque Armstrong and Aldrin left in the Sea of Tranquility? "They came in peace for all mankind." Somehow NASA must reassert that vision. Otherwise it risks becoming just one more pawn in Bush's plans for a New World Order, perhaps a hub for directing and extending the Space Defense Initiative, the long-term militarizing of space. And so the question is not whether NASA could have rescued the crew of the Columbia. The question is:
Can NASA rescue itself?