Sunday, February 1, 2004

NASA is up to a most human challenge


A year ago today, Americans awoke to shocking video images of the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating over the Southwest, killing seven astronauts. For most, it provided an awful flashback to the Challenger shuttle launch disaster in 1986.

Ceremonies this weekend to remember those tragedies, along with the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, come at a pivotal time for NASA. It has been reeling from criticism for its failure to detect the damage that doomed Columbia, plus an official report that outlined how NASA's bureaucratic culture compromised safety.

Wayne Hale, deputy shuttle program manager, just published an extraordinarily frank letter to his colleagues, taking personal blame for the Columbia tragedy and calling on NASA employees to change the way they think. (www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=11675).

And yet the space agency recently has been buoyed by the success of Mars rovers - including last week's apparent revival of the first rover, Spirit - and by President Bush's recent call to renew manned space exploration to the moon, then to Mars.

Despite the failures and tragedies we mourn, those involved space in the program should take heart today. Theirs is an effort that will benefit all humankind. NASA is setting aside the last Thursday in each January as its Day of Remembrance. Three peaks at the Spirit landing site on Mars have been named after the Apollo 1 astronauts. The two rover landing sites have been named after the shuttle crews.

That is fitting. It's likely Columbia will not be the last space tragedy to break America's heart. There will be risk, and lives will be lost, as has always been true with voyages of discovery through the ages. And as with those voyages, space exploration will continue to produce as-yet unimagined economic and technological benefits that in the long term will enrich the lives of ordinary citizens.

Most important, it will enrich the imagination of a species that cannot help but keep searching beyond the next horizon. It is an integral part of what it means to be human.

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