2003-02-06 / This Week's Attitude

Sky’s The Limit For Discovery Disaster Inquiry

This Week
By Neil S. Friedman

This Week’s

We are, once again, a nation in mourning. By the time groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow in Sunday’s pre-dawn chill to see his silhouette on a mound in Pennsylvania — a possible indication of another six weeks of wintry weather — a symbolic shadow had enveloped our country for almost 24 hours.

With the effects of 9/11/01 lodged in the national consciousness, we now grieve for a group of intrepid explorers who died just sixteen minutes before their scheduled Florida landing when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated 40 miles above Earth, killing the seven-person crew and scattering debris across hundreds of miles of east Texas and Louisiana.

The shock waves from this tragedy instantly spread around the globe, not only because of the unexpected outcome of the mission, but because it had a unique international flavor with one Indian-born crew member and the first Israeli astronaut. (In a creepy coincidence, part of the debris fell on a Texas town called Palestine.)

The fact that it was only the third disaster in 42-year-history of America’s manned space program did not diminish the shock of the catastrophe.

It was, nonetheless, jarringly ironic that it occurred in the same calendar week as the first two calamities: on January 27, 1967, three astronauts died in an Apollo One capsule fire, and on January 28, 1986, the Challenger spacecraft exploded shortly after liftoff, killing its seven crew members, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. (Three days before the Columbia catastrophe, its crew members remembered the Challenger astronauts in a poignant tribute while circling the planet.)

When the U.S. space program began, I watched with a keen eye, spurred by an early interest in astronomy that was aroused after being captivated by ‘50s science fiction films. Before puberty, I watched as America and Russia engaged in a scientific, ideological rivalry to determine who would be the first to conquer space. The USSR was out in front as the sixties began, due in part to its repressive news policy about failures that tended to illuminate America’s early fiascos.

President Kennedy, however, made the space race a national priority, promising in 1962 that we would reach the moon before the end of the decade. Sadly, he did not live to see his promise fulfilled, but the eyes of the world watched on that memorable July night in 1969, when American Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the granular lunar surface taking that "giant leap for mankind."

Through the seventies and eighties, except for a brief resurgence before the Challenger tragedy, fascination with the space program gradually waned, as each subsequent endeavor seemed monotonous to most Americans. NASA’s efforts are generally ignored until disaster occurs.

As the public’s attention fades, NASA seems to come up with another jolt of hype to draw renewed interest. Five years ago they recruited 77-year-old Senator John Glenn, one of America’s original Mercury seven astronauts, to be the oldest person ever to travel into space. A geriatric guinea pig, if you will, to determine the effects of weightlessness and other factors on an elderly individual. This time NASA secured worldwide interest by enlisting two non-native crew members.

I was aware of the Columbia mission only because I happened to catch a news report about the problems during the January 16 launch that may now have more significance in the impending investigations to determine the cause of Saturday’s mishap. After liftoff, the Columbia mission reportedly proceeded flawlessly — until Saturday’s catastrophic reentry.

I’m still among those who believe, despite the potential for discovering benefits for mankind in outer space, that the U.S. overindulges for space exploration, especially when there are myriad earthbound mysteries that should have precedence.

To return a small portion of the debt that President Bush on Tuesday said we owe the seven men and women of the Columbia crew, nothing less than a painstaking, sky’s-the-limit, independent investigation – unlike the Challenger inquiry – should be undertaken that reassures no tile, no bit of debris, no shred of evidence is overlooked before we again dispatch precious human cargo into space — the final frontier.

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