The Price of Space Exploration

© 2003 by Robert C. Moler

On Saturday morning February 1st, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon entry into the earth’s atmosphere. It’s seven astronauts were lost. Late January and now early February are not good ones for the American manned space program. The Apollo 1 accident in January 1968, the Challenger explosion in January 1986, and now Columbia in February point to a bleak time of year. Only Challenger fell victim to the winter weather, and to the failure to design booster joints to withstand the cold.

The Apollo 1 was an accident was just waiting to happen. We had skated through the Mercury and Gemini programs ground testing capsule procedures with astronauts in a 100% oxygen atmosphere at sea level pressures. It caught up with us with a fire that killed three astronauts.

The cause of the Columbia accident may never be known, so it may be a long time before the shuttles resume flying. Until then the Russians have themselves a space station. They are the only ones who can get to the International Space Station, supply it, and get the two astronauts and a cosmonaut who are living there down. There’s a Soyuz spacecraft docked there just for emergencies like this.

Now is the time when the space program is going to be reassessed by just about everyone from Congress on down. The perennial question always is: “Is human space flight too risky?” And this is from a population who apparently willing are to send our service people off in harms way to remove one despot in Iraq.

For me the space program must be multi-faceted. Great unmanned observatories like Hubble and Chandra orbit the earth sending back a wealth of information and images that have altered our understanding of the universe. The Hubble was saved and improved by several visits by the space shuttle where humans went outside and refurbished it.

Robot spacecraft have flown through the comas of comets. Robert Fahrquar and his crew at Johns Hopkins even soft landed a spacecraft on a rapidly spinning asteroid, after orbiting it for a year. We were thrilled in 1997 when the little Sojourner rover wandered around what might be a dry river bed on Mars. This year NASA plans to launch two more rovers to Mars.

Human space missions are much more expensive and of shorter duration compared to robots. People can’t live on kilowatts alone, robots can. But humans are adaptable. All the Galileo space craft needed to send back more data from Jupiter was someone on board to give the fording antenna dish a swift kick.

It’s not a question of man versus machine in the exploration of space and the universe. It is what combination of both will best advance our knowledge of the universe, and our ability to live and prosper in space.

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Updated 03/03/03