Friday, February 7, 2003

Columbis Tragedy


Why we will go back to space

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Columbia had barely fallen to Earth last Saturday when some "experts" started opining that it should never have been up there in the first place.

I'm glad that, so far, these naysayers have been drowned out by the voices of inspiration.

It has been argued by some since the earliest days of NASA that sending people into space is more trouble than it is worth. People make space shots more complicated. You have to give them air to breathe, room to move around, food and water, and, most importantly, you have to bring them back to Earth safely. When that doesn't happen, as in the tragic case of Columbia, the space program slows down until the cause of the disaster is identified and fixed.

How much easier, according to the machine-only crowd, to blast an unmanned vehicle off and, when it has completed its mission, let it just crash into the dust of some distant planet or burn up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Explorer I, America's first satellite, was sent up Jan. 31, 1958, about three months after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Explorer could fit in the trunk of your car. It was a cylinder about three feet long and 6 inches in diameter. It circled the Earth 58,000 times before flaming out of existence in a decaying orbit decayed on March 31, 1970.

Voyager I left Earth on Sept. 5, 1977 to investigate the outer planets in the Solar System. After checking out the moons of Jupiter and Saturn it just kept going and basically became a message in a bottle heading out into interstellar space.

You can't do things like that with manned spacecraft. There is value to such missions. But they are precursors. Exploration is a human quest, not just the reading of telemetry sent back from some far distant machine. No matter how far Voyager goes, it will never reach the milestone that will be achieved when a human being sets foot on a distant world.

In The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe described the resistance of the original Mercury astronauts to being treated as cargo instead of pilots. They refused to be "Spam in the can" and made the engineers put windows in the capsules and manual releases inside of the hatches. The astronauts realized that it is people who give purpose and identity to scientific exploration.

We don't watch in awe when the rockets lift off at Kennedy because of what is in the cargo bay. We didn't watch in horror as Columbia burned up over Texas because we cared about the spacecraft. The space program may be about science, but it also is about romance and adventure. Anyone who ever has watched a space launch has wondered, at least briefly, what it would be like to take such a ride.

When I was nine years old and watched Alan Shepard go into space, I was like every other kid in my class. I wanted to be an astronaut. It never happened, but I feel the same pang every time I see footage of a crew in flight suits waving goodbye before boarding the shuttle.

Space flight has not been pushed by machines, it has been pushed by people who have the spirit to explore and dare and the courage to act on their dreams.

Orville Wright had his first flight in 1903. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon just 66 years later. That's a short flight of history. Just how short is illustrated by the life of Ralph Charles. Charles, of Columbus, Ohio, built planes for Orville Wright in 1919. He went on to be a barnstormer and commercial pilot in the `20s and `30s and a test pilot in World War II. He stopped flying in 1945 because it worried his wife. When she died in 1995 he started flying again, at age 95. A couple of years ago he operated a shuttle simulator at NASA's invitation. He died Sunday, at 103, the day after Columbia crashed.

When somebody asked why he went back to flying after so many years, Charles said, "Sometimes when I would mow, I would imagine my tractor was a plane and I was rising up into the sky."

No matter how sophisticated our satellites and robots become, we will keep sending human crews into space. It isn't enough to just send machines. We want to go there ourselves.

Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.