The recent deaths of the seven Columbia astronauts has served to remind us of the dangers of space flight. Somehow, it seems like we get one of these 'reminders' every time space flight starts to feel 'routine'. It is anything but routine. It's a risky business and we can be absolutely certain that astronauts and their families are quite aware of these risks prior to and during each and every mission. As we pause to remember the astronauts and their families, we should keep a few points in mind:
  • The men and women who reach for the stars on behalf of humanity do so, at least in part, because they believe that the benefits to humanity justify the risks that they are taking.

    CNN interviewed the mother of one of the Columbia astronauts on the evening of the event. She spoke of how her son had understood the risks associated with space flight but had felt that the potential benefits to humanity that could flow from the scientific experiments planned for the mission made the risks worthwhile. Even after suffering the loss of her son, she seemed quite adamant that the risks had been justified.

    In contrast, I'd barely heard the news of the tragedy and the talking heads were already spouting off about how this incident called into question the wisdom of manned space flight. If you want to look for the heros of this story, cast your gaze towards the astronauts and their families. If you want to find the cowards and/or hypocrites, you need go no further than those who will try to use this incident as justification for reducing our commitment to the manned exploration of space.

  • Although the thirst for knowledge is extremely important to us as a species, it seems to be even more important that we actually experience things. It is not and never will be sufficient to explore space using only unmanned probes. In order to satisfy this need to experience, we must actually send humans into space to do the experiencing.

    Is it dangerous? Yes, of course it's dangerous but life is dangerous (seven children were killed in an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies at about the same time that the seven Columbia astronauts died and I don't hear anyone saying that we should stop skiing even though this is the second group of seven humans killed in an avalanche in the past few weeks). If we are going to be human then we must experience life. We should not and must not pretend that we can somehow experience life via the scientific exploration equivalent of watching reality television!

  • Since before the beginning of human history, we as a species have been explorers. We now find ourselves on the threshold of being able to embark on the human exploration of the solar system. To turn away from this opportunity would constitute the ultimate betrayal of humanity by depriving us of the knowledge and experiences to be gained from such an endeavour and it would betray the seven Columbia astronauts (and their families) who believed that what they were doing was worth risking their lives for.

    It would also be an act of the most extreme cowardice as it would mean that we had encountered a frontier that we were afraid to explore. If the exploration of space is too dangerous for humans to attempt then where does that leave us as a species? Cowering in fear on this lonely planet when there is an entire solar system (and more) waiting to be explored and experienced?

    Surely not!

The Columbia astronauts, like the Challenger astronauts and others, were reaching for the stars on our behalf. The best way to both remember them and to pay our respects to them is to ensure that we continue to reach for the stars on their behalf.

In Memoriam

It is difficult to put into words the sadness that I feel when I think about the Columbia space shuttle disaster. At the time this piece is being written, the root cause is still being investigated and may never be properly determined.

Some say that the disaster exposes the shortcomings of our faith in technology--a faith that is rapidly falling out of favor in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst and the resulting industry meltdown. The same people feel that we should pull back and not risk lives on dangerous ventures like manned space exploration. I pity those who feel this way.

There were probably pessimists and naysayers on the shore when the first flimsy rafts and dugouts ventured out into the open sea, and at the village edge pointing and sneering at the backs of the first adventurers to leave the familiar environs of home. As people extended their reach to lands and seas far beyond their homeland's horizon, those detractors were not only proven wrong, but also myopic and narrow-minded as well.

Technology is a tool, and can only achieve what we make of it. To blame technology for what happened is like blaming a fatal fall on the ladder instead of on the person who failed to secure it properly.

Technology did not fail the crew of the Columbia. I believe that it will eventually be determined that--like the Challenger before it--the Columbia was a victim of engineering design shortcomings exacerbated by budget-driven management error. Alerts and recommendations for better designs and operating procedures were ignored, and shuttle operations were carried out with an attitude of complacency and wishful thinking that is shocking given the seriousness of the endeavor. It has even been determined that managers turned down requests for an inspection of the shuttle by satellite before re-entry.

We need to take the Columbia disaster and make it a rallying cry to recapture the spirit that made the American space program the best in the world. Whatever is created to replace the Space Shuttle must implement the level of safety and performance necessary to become a viable and reliable space travel system.

We should increase research efforts in the areas of advanced propulsion and life-support technologies, so that mankind's reach can expand to the edges of our solar system, and eventually beyond. Only by exploration and development of the resources and discoveries resulting from a vigorous and well-funded space program can we expand beyond the cradle that is Earth.

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