Columbia Lost, But Not A Nation
Boulder - Feb 24, 2003
The sad and sudden demise of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew on the frontier of space on February 1st provided a sharp reminder of the risks of spaceflight. The deep, heartfelt U.S. reaction to this accident that has been expressed in so many ways in the days since Columbia was lost illustrates the intimate connection that Americans have with frontiers in general, and space exploration in particular.
Space exploration is indeed a characteristically American endeavor, going far beyond the sporadic prominence it often receives in mainstream media. That popularity is evidenced by the blockbuster popularity of numerous motion pictures-from Star Wars to Apollo 13, to recent polls expressing widespread desires for public space travel, and the virtually ubiquitous interest of our children in space exploration. When American's are asked how they picture the future, the reply very often includes a vision of routine spaceflight and distant exploration.
This does not surprise. The United States is a nation bred from generations of explorers from every walk in life, who emigrated to and settled a raw continent, and then built a society brimming with success and innovation on the fruits of those explorations.
It is also no surprise that flight of all kinds became a metaphor in the 20th century for the American spirit of exploration. For flight, like continental exploration, closely parallels American notions of freedom, economic expansion, and spiritual inspiration.
One hundred years ago, in 1903, Ohioans Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first flights in powered aircraft. Just 75 years ago, Missourian Charles Lindbergh made the first solo air crossing of the Atlantic. Just 55 years ago, Californian Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. And from 1969 to 1972, 24 Americans circled or walked on the Moon.
Furthermore, by the early 1970s, NASA had launched, or were building, robotic explorers to reconnoiter every planet in our solar system planet save Pluto. These historic events will, one suspects, guarantee America's legacy in the long view of history perhaps more than any others save its very formation as a pioneering democratic nation.
The rate of advance and exploration during the first seven decades of the 20th century was electrifying. In the final quarter of the 20th century, however, America paused from new missions of exploration. Now would be a wonderful time to resume.
A reexamination of the U.S. national space program has naturally come with last week's Shuttle accident. That reexamination has reminded us that the exploration and exploitation of the space frontier has brought innumerable advances.
These range from communications satellites and household computers, to GPS receivers and countless medical discoveries, from a deep-seated appreciation for our one Earth, to a broad scientific understanding of the Universe that even the wildest astronomical dreamers could not have imagined at the dawn of the space age.
But there is much more in the promise of space exploration than this. The promise of space is a part of a larger pledge that we all make to ourselves: the promise of a better future.
So too, there is pride in seeing a hopeful future unfold, and there is the promise of new economic expansion. Perhaps most importantly in these difficult days at the dawn of the 21st century, there is the inspiration space exploration provides- to ourselves, to our companions across the world, and most importantly- to our children.
Lest we imagine it is too late to renew our space exploration efforts, let us remember: We are as early in the 21st century, as the Wright brothers were in the 20th century when they traveled to Kitty Hawk and changed the world.
So here, now, following the twin tragedies of 9-11 and the loss of Columbia's, there comes a new opportunity for great dreams, for pride in optimistic endeavors, and for resolve: For we in the United States can invigorate the notion American frontiers again through the exploration of space.
At our footstep is an opportunity to simultaneously honor fallen heroes and inspire a new generation of heroes who will shape a new century by making a deeper commitment to spaceflight than at any time since the 1960s.
And we should make a bold and lasting commitment to the exploration of the Moon and planets by both sophisticated robots and brave humans.
In doing so, we should seek to inspire the world, and make history again.
Congress and President Bush should honor the fallen heroes of STS-107 with such a promise. It could be done by investing less than a dime toward the future to match every dollar spent defending ourselves against real and terrible enemies.
There are new frontiers in the thousands of points of light in the heavens above our precious blue planet. If we choose this course, the road will be long and hard, and yes, also dangerous. But so were the frontiers that our great nation took as previous challenges.
Will we take this road? I do not know: but our descendants will. Most particularly, they will know whether we made as much of the promise of space now, as our forbearers did of the promise of flight, precisely one hundred years ago. It is time to choose.
Alan Stern is the director of the Department of Space Studies of the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. He is the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt.
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A Challenge To Space Leadership
Scottsdale - Feb 12, 2003
Advocates of real human space exploration are doomed to impotence and irrelevance. Crippled by petty infighting, slaves to personality cults, disorganized and rudderless, the space community is incapable of acting to change the American public agenda. I challenge the leadership of the space movement to prove me wrong writes John Carter McKnight in his latest Spacefaring Web.