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Beyond The Sunset

The Spacefaring Web 3.03
by John Carter McKnight

Scottsdale - Feb 03, 2003
In a society inured to horror, as ours is rapidly becoming, disaster invites not grief, but abstract policy analysis, jockeying for advantage, and scapegoating. Columnists have written already of the loss of irreplaceable infrastructure, of the inefficiency of crewed experiments in space. But our presence is space is not about engineering or science, but about our spirit. It is only in grief that the real meaning of Columbia's loss can be found.

Saturday morning was unlike 9/11, different even from the day of Challenger's loss. The familiarity now of disaster, the comprehensible scale of this tragedy after the loss of the twin towers, made our grief sharper and more immediate. The blessed numbing of shock that sheltered us in the past is lost now in this harsher world. The horror, the rage, the tears come more quickly, more inexorably now.

Some perverse trick of memory brings past pain to the fore again as well. Images of the Challenger explosion footage running endlessly on a wall of screens in a New York newsroom, Ground Zero coverage on a jury-rigged TV in a bookstore, suddenly were as immediate again as on those awful mornings. All grief is Now, it seems.

This is a time for that grief, for sharing it in the remembrance that we are a community, that we really are a Spacefaring Web, none of us more than a few degrees of separation from our dead heroes. The State of Israel knows this truth, uniting to mourn Col. Ilan Ramon as a neighbor, as kin. Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon are all our neighbors; they are all our kin. It's family that we lost, family whose loss we will feel the rest of our lives, as we still feel the loss of the Challenger crew nearly a generation ago.

But why this public grief, why the language of family, of heroism and sacrifice? Why the unique status of astronauts, when other test pilots, doctors and researchers die unnoticed every day? Only by answering these questions can we learn what space travel means to us, to people around the world.

The loss of astronauts matters to us because, however mundane the tasks they actually perform, the meaning of what they do is transcendent. It matters that Columbia's crew looked like America, perhaps not as it actually is, but as the smart, educated, capable people we aspire to be. It matters that an Israeli astronaut was aboard, signifying a troubled nation's efforts to reach above the morass of politics and impending war.

The science astronauts do doesn't matter, really, not to most of the world. Nor does the engineering of Shuttle systems matter. The hope matters. The pull of transcendence matters. When that pull is lost, cut short by death or weakened by governmental ineptitude and the petty sniping of the dreamless, we feel loss. We feel grief.

SpaceDaily columnist Bruce Moomaw claims, logically, "that manned spaceflight, at this point in history, is not remotely worth either its cost or its risk of lives." His op-ed is entitled "The Space Age Born of the Cold War is Over," a sentiment I strongly agree with. He concludes that "[a]ll we can hope for at this point, however, is that the White House and Congress will finally come to their senses and shut the American manned space program down, completely, until radical new technology allows massive improvements in both launch cost and flight safety."

His facts are right. His criticism of NASA's performance as a government agency is unassailably accurate. His implicit argument that taxpayers who lack life's urge to expand, who're deaf to the explorer's call to see what lies beyond, should not have to subsidize the work of those of us who do, much as it may benefit them in time. But he's wrong, because he's missed the point entirely.

The Mars Society press release got it right. Its response to yesterday's tragedy was, with its typical masterful sense of the beau geste, to call for a commemorative grove of trees to be planted - on Mars. Easy to mock, but much more true than the facts of those who argue against our - not our machines, but our, continuing presence in space.

We don't go for efficiency. We go for reasons almost impossible to express to those who don't feel the pull into the unknown, who don't see risk and danger as matters to be controlled and then accepted, rather than avoided at any cost.

I can't explain it. I've tried. Over the past day I've worked to find a means of convincing critics, from my mother to Moomaw, for whom the cost/benefit analysis makes no sense. There is neither convincing argument from reason, nor more than silly songs and doggerel put forward to explain the unreasoning call of life's expansion. We need an explorer-poet, and we don't have one.

We do have an explorer's poem, though, long a favorite with those who hear that call. In the end, it is all I have to offer by way of argument, by way of refutation of the cool logic of those who call for us to stay safely, affordably home and send out robots to do the bloodless work of science and engineering they yet call "exploration."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, writing as Ulysses a generation after the heroic age of Troy, wrote that

We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

This is why we grieve today. This is why we know that, while the Spacefaring Web has suffered loss, it has not torn. This is why we will continue.

Come, my friends.

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die.

In memoriam.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2002 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation http://www.space-frontier.org Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. For comments, subscribing or unsubscribing, contact the author at [email protected]

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The Space Age Born Of The Cold War Is Over
Los Angeles - Feb 02, 2003
Today's appalling Shuttle tragedy proves -- once again -- that manned spaceflight, at this point in history, is not remotely worth either its cost or its risk of lives. In this immediate reaction to this disaster SpaceDaily columnist Bruce Moomaw argues virtually any scientist worth his salt has been pointing out this fact routinely for decades. And any skeptic is invited to take a look at what the professional science journals regularly say on this subject.

Let's Weaponize Space
Scottsdale - Jan 30, 2003
Efforts to ban space-based weaponry, by international treaty and American legislation, are directly harmful to space development. Practical, effective means of defending space-based assets can ensure the growth of infrastructure and enable the establishment of human settlements in space. Space advocates should join in opposing overbroad efforts to prevent space weaponization writes John Carter McKnight in his latest Spacefaring Web.

Scrap The Shuttle Program
by Carlton Meyer
Editor G2mil.com
Richmond - Nov 01, 2002
The US military considers control of outer space vital to future warfare. Spaceprojects.com noted that page 18 of this Commerce Department report (pdf) documents how the USA slipped to just 29% of the world's launch market share in the year 2000, even though we had 48% of it in 1996, and apparently all of it the decade before.

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