That those who've died need not have died in vain

On February 1, 2002, 5 men and two women died as the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry.

The nation, indeed, the world, mourns their loss.  However, the greater tragedy would be for their deaths to have been in vain, for us to turn our backs on the new frontier that they sought to explore in mankind's reach for the stars.

After the loss of the Columbia, I composed two letters, the first a Letter to the Editor of my local paper, the second a letter to be sent to my representatives in Washington.  I reproduce them here:

The first is as follows:

This morning, 7 heroes lost their lives.  And, if events follow the course they followed the last time a crew of a Space Shuttle was lost, we will see an end to manned space flights, saving only whatever is required to return the crew of the Space Station to Earth, until the cause of the accident can be found and space travel can once again be made "safe."  There will be much discussion of how dangerous space travel can be and much questioning whether we should continue at all.

The problem is, the cause of this accident will very likely never be found.  Given the speed and altitude at which Columbia broke apart, the flight recorder will likely never be recovered.  We will never know just what happened so we cannot "fix" it to make things "safe."

I would hope, however, that people remember that space travel, indeed pioneering of any stripe, has never been safe.  I am reminded of Virgil "Gus" Grissom and the Apollo 1 fire.  Shortly before that tragic accident that took the lives of Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White, Grissom gave a speech in which he said that even were he to die, it would be his wish that the space program go on and that man continue the reach for the stars.  Sadly prophetic was that speech, but the Space Program did go on.

If those who question the value of human exploration succeed in getting the space program stopped now, then those who have died in Apollo, in Challenger, in Columbia, and elsewhere will have died for nothing. Their legacy will be an empty space where once was humankinds will to reach out, facing challenges and dangers, to seek out what is new and wondrous.  And that would be the greatest tragedy.

We must reach out, we must continue, if the deaths of these people is to mean anything.  Without risk, there is no gain.  Behold the tortoise: he maketh no progress unless he sticketh out his neck.

"Is it worth it?" I'm sure every one of us must ask ourselves that question.  Yet who better to say whether the risk is worth it but those who take the risk?  The people who fly into space are all knowledgeable and well trained.  They know full well the risk they take every time they ride that fire into the sky.  This is not a case of some person taking risks through ignorance or foolishness, but the clear-headed assessment of the what risks one is willing to face and for what gain. If they think the risk is worth it, who are we to gainsay them?

The scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke once said, "If man is to survive, for most of human history the word 'ship' will mean space ship."

Don't let these heroes deaths be in vain.

The second is here:

Saturday, after hearing about the tragic destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, I wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star urging that people not allow this tragedy to lead to the end of human space exploration lest the deaths of the brave men and women who challenged space should be in vain.

That leaves the question of what to do.  As I see it, there are three things that the United States Government can, and should, do.

The first is to encourage private development of Space Travel.  It has long been a truism that having all one's eggs in one basket is a bad idea.  Any difficulties and you lose the whole thing.  Also, one organization, even a government organization such as NASA, cannot pursue all promising lines of development.  By encouraging private enterprise to develop and explore space, many avenues will be tried.  Some, perhaps most, will fail, but we as a nation, as a species, will learn more from having tried them than from not.  As always happens when more options are tried, we are more likely to find the best option.  To this end the laws and regulations regarding private space activity, particularly private manned space activity, must be examined with an eye to what encourages rather than discourages private activity in space.

The second thing that should be done is related to the first.  Government programs should focus on developing enabling technologies.  This reflects the developments in basic aerodynamics made by the old National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA) and the technological test and development of the X programs of the 50's and 60's.  X programs such as those would be an excellent start.  Build craft to test, build them quickly, and build them cheaply.  These craft would be simple test, no-frills, vehicles to test limited objectives.  Fly them hard once they're built, learn what you can from them, and move on to the next.  This philosophy worked well for us in the 50's and 60's.  It can work well for us again.

The third thing to do is more dramatic than both the others combined.  It is to establish rewards for success, but only for success.  One way would be to offer prizes, such as the following (the original proposal was written by noted science fiction author, journalist, and space activist Dr. Jerry Pournelle.  See his original at the web site:  I have amended it slightly to include prizes for "second place."):

Be it enacted by the Congress of the United States:

The Treasurer of the United States is directed to pay to the first American owned company (if corporate at least 60% of the shares must be held by American citizens) the following sums for the following accomplishments. The second such company shall receive a prize of 1/2 the listed sums.  No monies shall be paid until the goals specified are accomplished and certified by suitable experts from the National Science Foundation or the National Academy of Science:

1. The sum of $2 billion to be paid for construction of 3 operational spacecraft which have achieved low earth orbit, returned to earth, and flown to orbit again three times in a period of three weeks.

2. The sum of $5 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a space station which has been continuously in orbit with at least 5 Americans aboard for a period of not less than three years and one day. The crew need not be the same persons for the entire time, but at no time shall the station be unoccupied.

3. The sum of $12 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a Lunar base in which no fewer than 31 Americans have continuously resided for a period of not less than four years and one day. 

4. The sum of $10 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a solar power satellite system which delivers at least 800 megaWatts of electric power to a receiving station or stations in the United States for a period of at least two years and one day.

5. The payments made shall be exempt from all US taxes.

This would cost the US Taxpayers nothing unless the goals are actually achieved.  The results would be routine access to space, a good start on people living and working in space as a practical matter, access to space-based resources, and a good start on ending US dependence of foreign oil and the political difficulties that come because of it.  If these things can be done, then we get the benefits of them at what many would consider a reasonable cost.  If they cannot be done, the government treasury loses nothing.  I can think of no better legacy to give to those who lost their lives in the recent tragedy, and others who have also died pursuing the opening of the "Final Frontier."

Leave your comments