It was five years ago this month, on February 1, 2003, that the space shuttle Columbia, returning from two weeks in orbit, was lost over Texas. Seven astronauts — six Americans and one Israeli — died as Columbia broke to pieces in the sky and fell aflame to earth.
The hours that followed brought chaotic press speculation, as NASA officials scrambled to figure out what had happened and how to explain it.
The days that followed brought funerals and memorial services for the astronauts. “Our whole nation was blessed to have such men and women serving in our space program,” President Bush said three days after the disaster. “They will always have an honored place in the memory of this country. And today I offer the respect and gratitude of the people of the United States.”
The weeks that followed brought contentious hearings, as congressional supporters and critics of NASA began to dig into the space agency’s behavior and its budgetary plans.
The months that followed brought answers. The board established to investigate the Columbia accident determined that the shuttle broke up because it had been damaged during its launch. A piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and hit Columbia’s wing. Even though the foam was only the size and weight of a three-pack of paper towel, the shuttle was moving fast enough that the foam did serious damage — and when Columbia reentered Earth’s atmosphere nearly 16 days later, superheated air entered the hole that the foam had made and disintegrated the wing.
The investigation board noted in its final report that the space agency knew that foam had hit the shuttle on its ascent, but that NASA’s managers had “displayed no interest in understanding” the problem. “Bureaucracy and process trumped thoroughness and reason,” the investigation board concluded. NASA’s “organizational culture” was seriously flawed: management hierarchies were far too rigid, dissent was stifled, and important information was watered down into wishy-washy PowerPoint slides as it moved up the chain of command. The NASA responsible for the Columbia accident was a “less technically and organizationally capable organization than the Apollo-era NASA,” the report found.
Beyond the technical and organizational causes of the Columbia accident, though, the investigation board also pointed out a deeper problem plaguing America’s space program. The board’s final report noted “the lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.” During the Cold War, NASA worked miracles to win the space race and beat the Soviets to the Moon — but what was NASA’s purpose in the years that followed? The agency sent space shuttles up and down, conducted experiments in low-Earth orbit, and eventually built the International Space Station. But were the shuttle and the station worth the cost? Were they worth the risk to astronauts’ lives?
These were the sorts of questions ringing in policymakers’ ears in 2003. In essence, the Bush administration faced three broad options as it considered the future of NASA. First, it could have drastically scaled back, or even ended, the U.S. manned spaceflight program. We could continue to explore space using probes and robots without spending billions of dollars on the dangerous task of putting human beings into outer space. Perhaps someday, following unforeseeable technological advances, human spaceflight will become cheaper and safer — but until that day, we should stay here on the ground.
The second option facing the Bush administration would have preserved the status quo. Columbia’s demise was a terrible accident, and one that reflected badly on NASA’s management. But, the proponents of this option argued, our nation’s general approach to space — launching the space shuttle, building the space station, and loosely considering eventually designing a new spacecraft — was a good one. Columbia was a horrible loss, but it was ultimately the sort of inevitable setback we must expect, and it would be wrong to retreat from space.
The third option — the option the Bush administration adopted — would be to try something new, bold, and ambitious. President Bush and his advisers recognized the strategic importance of NASA’s manned spaceflight program but realized that the agency was stuck in a rut. As President Bush put it nearly a year after the Columbia accident:
In the past thirty years, no human being has set foot on another world, or ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles — roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts. America has not developed a new vehicle to advance human exploration in space in nearly a quarter century. It is time for America to take the next steps.
Those next steps, the new policy that the president announced that day and that NASA has been pursuing ever since, involve using the space shuttle for a few last missions to finish the International Space Station and to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and then permanently retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010. It will be replaced by a new spacecraft — one modeled after the Apollo capsules of the 1960s and 70s. And most importantly, NASA’s manned space program will be given destinations instead of missions into orbit and back down. Americans will return to the Moon around 2020 and, in time, will explore Mars.
In the four years since the president first announced this plan, it has been criticized for its cost (even though NASA’s budget has not been greatly increased), it has been criticized for redirecting too much of NASA’s funding away from science, and it has been criticized for being too slow to get us back to the Moon. Some critics disapprove of the decision to return to the Moon instead of a new destination like Mars or an asteroid.
But almost no one has criticized the overall strategy — the plan to end the space-shuttle program and make NASA a destination-driven agency again, as it was in the glory days of the Apollo era. This new strategy, proposed by President Bush and ratified with broad bipartisan support in successive congressional budgets, is a sound one technically and financially. It is a strategy this year’s presidential candidates should endorse. It is a fitting tribute to the seven astronauts who perished five years ago aboard Columbia — a commitment to fix the broken agency they worked for and to ensure that our greatest days in space are ahead of us, not behind us. And it is a strategy worthy of the American people, one that heeds once more the deep calling of our character: to explore and to understand.