Our Destiny in Space Demands Resolve, Cash, Consensus

William E. Burrows is an aerospace historian and the author of "By Any Means Necessary: America's Heroes Flying Secret Missions in a Hostile World" (Plume, 2002).

President Bush’s remarks after Saturday’s tragic loss of the orbiter Columbia and its crew of seven were comforting, but they ignore the fact that the space program has been the stepchild of successive administrations since the Apollo program aimed Americans at the moon. “The cause in which they died will continue,” the president said, unaware of the bitter irony of that statement.

The cause in which those incredibly brave, intelligent and accomplished astronauts died was that of trying to help hold the manned space program together with a chronically inadequate budget and what is basically the same Roman-candle technology that was used in the Apollo program.

The space program’s various constituents traditionally have had to fight each other for funding in a process that is as counterproductive as it is degrading. In the 1960s, with the Apollo moon landing program a clearly delineated political goal, adequate funding was channeled where it was needed. But a long budgetary slide started in 1966, even before astronauts reached the moon.


The core of the space program’s problem is that there is no clear consensus on what it should be.

Proponents of manned flight argue that a human presence in space is imperative not only because adventure and exploration are fundamental aspects of humankind but because only human heroism inspires support for the program -- read taxpayers.

Opponents of sending people to space, nearly all of them scientists, argue just as strenuously that people are not only unnecessary for the collection of scientific data in space but are inordinately expensive because the life support systems necessary to keep them alive and safe drain money from programs that add to our knowledge of the worlds around us, including Earth.

The space program has evolved as a forced compromise between sides, with many scientists being co-opted to sign off on the manned program’s alleged scientific value in order to get their own experiments funded.

Congress has been caught in the middle of the political maneuvering and competition -- sometimes even between the scientists themselves, as happened in the war between proponents of the Hubble Space Telescope and advocates of the Galileo Jupiter spacecraft. As a result, lawmakers have tended to express less-than-wholehearted support for what they see as a fractured and contentious enterprise that never seems to get its collective act together.

The space station -- whose own tortured history goes back to 1984 when Ronald Reagan signed off on one called Freedom as an in-your-face gesture to the Russians -- is a case in point.


Last year, with cost overruns plaguing it, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration infuriated its foreign partners in the International Space Station by announcing that it would stop construction when it reached a “core complete” configuration (then set for next year but now in doubt because of the Columbia accident). This announcement had the effect of reducing the crew from six or seven to three, eliminating a lifeboat rescue spacecraft and further taking away several research facilities and crucial equipment for science experiments.

The unfinished station could no better symbolize the troubled space program than if it had been conceived on Madison Avenue. It is and will remain for the indefinite future incomplete: scientifically crippled, essentially purposeless and unreachable by a grounded shuttle fleet that is itself old and weakened by 25%.

The shuttles themselves were compromises that reflected the Nixon administration’s frugality and a hazily articulated mission. It was well known in 1969, when Richard Nixon approved the Space Transportation System (eventually to include a station), that two fully reusable spacecraft, one riding on the back of the other, was the obvious way to get into space and stay there. That, however, was taken to be unnecessarily expensive, so a cheaper design that used solid rocket boosters whose sections were sealed with rubber O-rings was chosen instead.

With two catastrophic failures in 113 flights, the shuttle’s safety record is actually impressive. Yet a series of potentially dangerous developments that preceded the destruction of Columbia, including cracked fuel lines and a hydraulic system failure, bodes ill for the future of the other aging spacecraft.

If anything good is to come out of the cause for which the Columbia astronauts died, it should be a resolve that it is humanity’s destiny to inhabit Earth orbit, the moon and beyond.

There must be top-to-bottom recognition, certainly in Congress and the White House, that this destiny requires a long-term political and financial commitment. And “long-term” means many decades, not two-year election cycles.

A human presence in space will require fully reusable shuttles that can be serviced on the ground like airliners, that will carry people and cargo to space very dependably and that will have the kind of escape systems that could have saved the lives of those who perished Saturday.

It is decision time. We owe the dead, their survivors and posterity no less.