Columbia: Ad Requiem, Ad Astra
By John D. Turner
2 Feb 2003

I remember when the Challenger exploded. I had a dental appointment that day. It was long ago when shuttle flights weren't as common or taken for granted as they are today, and launches were still carried live on the radio. I was listening in my car. Another successful lift-off, I remember thinking as I switched off the radio. For some reason, I turned it back on in the parking lot, just before I went in to get my teeth fixed, and wept as I realized that just seconds after I had tuned out, something had gone horribly wrong. Later that day, I wept again as I watched the television replay of that disaster. Even now, I remain unable to watch that footage without the same emotion I experienced that day.

Yesterday, the first of February 2003, it happened again. Seventeen years and four days later, the Columbia, on final approach from space, only a quarter of an hour from touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center runway, ceased to exist high in the sky above northeast Texas. With the Challenger there was some hope, however slight, that the astronauts might have survived the explosion. With the Columbia, traveling at over 12,000 mph and 200,000 feet altitude, there was none. I was in bed this time. I was awakened by a phone call; a friend, telling me to turn on my TV. That the Columbia had gone down over northern Texas. I too had become complacent. I wasn't even aware that Columbia was scheduled to deorbit that morning.

It's January 28th, 1986 all over again. Seemingly, nothing has changed. Prior to the Challenger disaster, we had four space shuttle orbiters. The same was true on February 1st. As happened back then, all manned space flight has been suspended pending discovery of what went wrong. Back then, it was nearly three years before a shuttle ascended again. For nearly three years we could not put a payload into space. Twenty-five percent of our capacity to put large objects into orbit vanished in a clap of thunder, and we as a nation were stunned. Our heavy lift technology had atrophied. We depended fully on Shuttle to boost large satellites to orbit and now Shuttle was down. By the time our capability to put large satellites in orbit was restored, we were down to one weather satellite covering the entire United States.

Most of us never even noticed. We take so many of the things we enjoy today for granted, and never think about where they come from or where we would be without them. For many Americans, there have always been weather satellites. They don't remember a time without them, when storms would strike our nation with no warning and heavy loss of life. How weather satellites get there is a complete mystery to many, one they never spend even a fleeting moment contemplating.

Seventeen years. And we are still flying the same shuttles, using technology designed over thirty years ago. Columbia was the first shuttle built, and was barely a quarter of the way through her design life of 100 missions. Did we seriously expect to be running the same shuttle program 60 years from now before we contemplated new orbiters? Oh, there have been proposals for new designs over the years. Our original shuttles weren't even the best we could have built. The original design called for a fully reusable shuttle, which would have further reduced the cost per pound we pay for our access to space. Congress, however, was unwilling to pay the upfront cost. Such has been true over the years. Why spend money to build a new shuttle when the old ones are performing adequately? There are so many more important things we need to fund. In a 1.5 Trillion dollar federal budget, NASA has to continually claw for its paltry 15 billion dollar piece of the pie.

Mr. President, I have a proposal for you. Instead of sending 15 billion to combat AIDS in Africa, why not spend the money a little closer to home. Why not increase funding for NASA, and build a new generation of shuttles to guarantee our continued access to space? We can no longer afford to be restricted to a small number of a single type of shuttle. Space is too important to our day-to-day life, and vital to our future as a nation. What if we only had a single type of passenger aircraft? Could the United States, as a nation, afford to ground our entire airline industry because of a single airplane crash? I think the events of September 11, 2001 showed what would happen were that to occur. For the first time in our history, we grounded the entire industry. The costs were enormous, and we are still recovering from them.

Likewise, we can no longer afford to ground our entire shuttle fleet. We currently have three astronauts in orbit on the International space station. Two Americans and a Russian. They have to be resupplied with food, air, and fuel. Moreover, they need to be rotated down periodically for their own continued health. A robust, diverse launch capability needs to be developed, so that when something like Challenger, like Columbia, happens again, the entire program won't be grounded.

Let's expand our presence in space. Let's have America lead the way to permanent habitation of space. Let's open the frontier for the future heritage of all mankind. It's raining soup out there. We should leave our bowls behind, and bring buckets. This isn't pouring money down a rathole, it's investment in the future. I find it ironic that the one government program that truly has paid for itself many times over in terms of technology pioneered, now commonplace and jobs created in industries that never before existed, should be so low on the totem pole when it comes budget time.

Let's go back to the moon, but permanently to stay this time. You want to decrease the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Mr. Bush? Let's build the space habitats, and solar power satellites. Let's beam cheap solar power back to Earth, from that permanent fusion reactor in the sky, the sun. The studies have been done. It's feasible, and cheaper than most people think. Worried about shrinking resources? Let's mine the asteroids.

Let's go to Mars. Why? Because it's there, and because it holds the promise of a potential second home for mankind. Let's terraform it, and make it into a second Earth. Let's think big. We are the United States of America after all. Let's lead the way to the future, and open the frontiers for all.

Our country was once a frontier. We built a robust economy, and formed a nation built of peoples from many nations, welded together as Americans. As a nation, we had a common goal; to explore and settle new lands; to extend the borders of America from sea to shining sea.

But now the frontiers are conquered. Many Americans wonder what is our purpose in life. Without a tangible goal, we bicker among ourselves; splinter into factions and groups. Collectively we have lost our way and have forgotten what it was that made us great. What is there that can make us hold our heads up high with pride that we are American's? There must be more to being a world leader than the capability to conquer any nation on the face of the globe, or having two cars and a wide-screen TV in every home.

A great nation must have great goals. They must be goals that are attainable, yet big enough to require the full attention of the nation for an extended period of time. And they shouldn't be goals for goals' sake, but should be of importance to the nation as a whole, preferable, for all mankind. The exploration and colonization of space fits that criteria.

We cannot allow this accident to stop us. Men and women will be killed in this effort, just as they have been in all pioneering activities since the dawn of time. We must expand. As Robert Heinlein, the acknowledged "dean of science fiction" once stated, "Earth is too small a basket to put all our eggs in".

We must remember that space is not a zero-sum game. We must not look at the dollar cost without looking at the whole picture; the benefits gained. We need to not only increase our funding for NASA, but also to increase the incentive for private business to expand into space as well. We need private consortiums to build their own launch vehicles and habitats. We need to rapidly move from an exclusive environment reserved for those special individuals we call astronauts, to one where the common person can reasonably expect to travel in space during their lifetime. We need to be able to say, in paraphrase of President Kennedy, "I too, am an astronaut".

I can watch the video of the Colombia's destruction, whereas I still cannot bear to view that of the Challenger. Part of that may be because the Challenger was first, and watching it takes me back to that time of horror, while the Colombia is the second time around. Maybe, but I don't think so. Those aboard Colombia had lived the dream. They spent 16 glorious days in orbit, performing experiments, living in zero gravity, and observing the Earth from space. A dream fulfilled. That they died on the way back is a tragedy, but at least they lived the dream. Those on Challenger never made it. They died on the way up, unfulfilled. In their ranks, a common person; a teacher. An extraordinary person, yes, but one who could have been any of us. Someone excited to be given the chance to live the dream, but who had it snatched from their fingers at the last instant. Those in Colombia died as a shooting star. At that speed, it must have been quick. Those in Challenger were not that fortunate.

For both the crew of Colombia, and the crew of Challenger, we must go on; both for them, and for we as a nation. Death is sad, yes. But we all die. Of how many of us will it be said that we died doing that in which we believed? Of how many of us will it be said that we died doing something bigger than ourselves? Let us take this tragedy and turn it around. Let us make it a rallying cry for a renewed space program, invigorated by the blood of heroes and the blood of our nation.

Let us remember Colombia and Challenger, and in their memory, renew our commitment to space.