February 10, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Exploration is Risky Business

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, second-guessing and hand-wringing about NASA's future has filled the airwaves, newsprint and cyberspace. Reporters ask inane questions like "Should the space program continue to use human astronauts or fly unmanned missions only?" Speculation abounds over human errors, political decisions or fiscal concerns that could have contributed to or caused the shuttle accident.

There are many to whom the fingers could point. During the 1990s, the budget for the shuttle program was reduced by 40 percent. A troubled Columbia mission in 1999 prompted President Clinton to give more money to the shuttle program, but President Bush later proposed major cutbacks in spending on safety programs.

Nevertheless, in-flight glitches fell from an average of 18 per flight in 1992 to approximately 5 per flight in 2000. Part of this might be attributable to the fact that many of the shuttle program's operations were privatized in 1996 in a joint venture between Rockwell International and Lockheed Martin, dubbed the United Space Alliance.

I can't help but wonderas I often wonder about every "big" news storyhow much of this brewing controversy is being generated by the media. No matter how many statistics one quotes, no matter what bureaucratic skeletons one drags from the closet, the simple fact remains that space exploration is dangerous business. Each and every astronaut who has volunteered to be hurtled skyward knows how risky it is. Each one knows they could be blown to bits on liftoff, suffocate in the cold vacuum of outer space, or perish during the landing sequenceyet still they go.

Columbus lost nine ships during his four voyages, including his flagship, the Santa Maria. Captain Cook lost his life during his South Pacific expedition. We seek the boundaries of new frontiers despite the risks, knowing the risks, accepting the risks. To act surprised when accidents happen, to question whether we should continue to explore, to try to find someone to blame when the expected comes to pass, is simply short-sighted.

And I'll go even one step further: it's disrespectful to those seven heroes who lost their lives nine days ago. They gave their lives for a better tomorrow. The only way to honor that sacrifice is to continue on in the same brave spirit in which they took their final voyage.

[I just received an email which quotes the brother of Columbia astronaut David Brown, and confirms what I wrote above: "When I asked Dave at Christmas what he would want me to say if he didn't make it back, he said the program must go on. He said 'I accepted this risk when I took the job, just as I did when I became a Naval aviator.'" —Ed.]


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Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The more things change, the more they remain insane.

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2/9: Staphylococcus
2/8: Morning Cup of Kofi
2/7: Game Over
2/6: The Eagle Never Landed
2/5: Pope: Potter No Problem
2/4: Time for Another Rewrite
2/3: A Matter of Opinions
2/2: Suicidal Bravado
2/1: Godspeed, Columbia

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