The Space Shuttle Columbia
2/4/2003

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    I won't presume to say much about the space shuttle disaster because so much has been, and is being said about it.
    Many have observed, Saturday, Sunday, and today, that the space shuttle is at the outer edge of technology. The new Ariane 5 rocket veered off course shortly after launch and had to be destroyed. It's a wonder that we can do what we do. Until I was 27, it was widely proclaimed to be impossible. Who would have thought that we could develop a spacecraft that could endure atmospheric re-entry without burning up, or without at least fracasseeing its passengers? We're not far away from the edge of the believable. Because our space flight program has been so successful, it's easy to be lulled into thinking that it's safe and routine, until an accident like this reminds us that it isn't. This is a risk that astronauts take when they sign up for space flight. (Unfortunately, though, this may cool space tourism.)
    When something like this happens, we find ourselves saying, "If only this could have been averted! Is carelessness to blame? Budget constraints? False economies?" One honest engineer on TV, who had warned about shuttle safety problems, said that he was referring to the long-term safety of the shuttle rather than to any imminent danger. He felt that what happened on Saturday could have happened at any time, even if the shuttle were brand new.
    For some reason, there's a lot of questioning of the value of various aspects of the space program in response to this accident. I don't know quite why. Nothing about the space program has changed. We wouldn't discuss canceling air travel, or trans-oceanic air travel if a jet had crashed over the Pacific. We're shocked, but the world will go on. Eventually, space launch and re-entry may become safer.
    Perhaps space elevators will be safer. Or perhaps an equatorial electromagnetic rail will launch cargoes, and possibly, passengers into orbit. No doubt better space launch techniques will eventually exist. But right now, we're restricted to sitting atop gigantic blowtorches that generate temperatures approaching those of the surface of the sun. And as sad as it is to contemplate, the one-in-sixty chance astronauts take may be part of the cost of the conquest of space.

        "...But still, the lacy Spires of Truth
Sing Beauty's madrigal,
       And She herself will ever dwell
Along the Grand Canal.

 --The Grand Canal


"I pray for one last landing
          On the globe that gave me birth.
   Let me rest my eyes
On the fleecy skies
           And the cool green hills of Earth."

---"The Cool Green Hills of Earth"
by
Robert Heinlein