We mourn the seven men and women who died on the space shuttle Columbia; we are awed by the fragility of human life when we venture beyond our natural earthly bounds; we are awed by death, which comes to us all.
But if the reaction to this disaster is somewhat different from the woe that greeted the explosion of the Challenger in 1986, that is because of the impact, between the two, of 9/11. The bar of national trauma has been raised. Perhaps the very concept of nameless bottomless grief is no longer relevant. We are not in a piping time of peace; disasters are part of daily life. When skilled professionals undertake a risky mission and pay the highest price, we honor them, and move on.
Should we move on to more shuttle missions? As Gregg Easterbrook and others have observed, the shuttles are primitive vehicles, using late-’70s/early-’80s technology. The half-billion-dollar price tag of each flight keeps the contractors that supply the ships happy; the ongoing program keeps NASA happy. But many of the allegedly valuable experiments can now be performed, in miniaturized form, on earth. The shuttles exist to service the Space Station, and the Space Station exists as a destination for the shuttles. NASA should be forced to think more creatively. The moon and Mars should be our goals, not an orbiting commuter stop.
We need a space program for the purposes of defense. The 21st century is not only the century of terrorism; it will also be the century of nuclear proliferation and Star Wars, the ultimate shield against proliferation. But we need a space program, even more importantly, for moral reasons. We should explore space to prove our excellence — to solve problems, and to show our bravery. We should also explore it to prove our smallness — to see, from ever new vantages, the beauty of Creation, and to experience, however much we learn, its mystery. The space program should take on those challenges, not by rerunning old scenarios, but by efficiently developing new ones.