Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Some Thoughts on the Columbia Disaster and How to Proceed from Here

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Some Thoughts on the Columbia Disaster and How to Proceed from Here

Article excerpt

The Space Shuttle 'Columbia' disaster in February of this year has led to a basic re-examination of the question of human space flight and how best to explore the solar system and worlds beyond. In April of this year NASA presented its Long Term plan for Space Exploration. A close reading of which would have one conclude that NASA was about to abandon Space exploration by humans in preference of robotic missions and in this process also dump the Space Shuttle and initiate a so-called Orbital Space Plane' that was but a reusable Apollo type capsule launched on an expendable rocket - a 'vision' soundly rejected in the early 1970s.

Provoked by this 'stealth' termination of Space exploration by humans the author composed the Memorandum published herein, addressed to Vice President Cheney and the White House, in which he argued that not only should the exploration of Space by humans continue, building on the half-completed reusable Space Transportation system (the Space Shuttle of today), but a historic new goal for human Space exploration could be set, to be achieved within a decade and at a cost of less than a doubling of the steadily shrinking NASA budget: the establishment of the first permanent human settlement on the Moon.

The author further suggested that an internal assessment effort of say three to four months would confirm the basic claims made herein and become the basis for a Presidential decision to such effect. Indications are that such a decision is forthcoming - dramatically reversing the course set by the Space bureaucracy a few months ago.

Key Words: NASA; SIG; Space Shuttle; Columbia; Space Exploration; Thrust Assisted Orbiter Shuttle; Space Transportation system.


Much has been said about the promise and costs of the Space Shuttle and of Space exploration. It is sad that it takes tragedy to focus society on the core issues of human enterprise and on the importance of space to America's future - in Space and on Earth. The "sacrifice" of the Columbia disaster threatens to be the pivotal event to renew the United States commitment to manned Space exploration and enterprise.

First an historical note: The world will soon see the launch to and return from space of the first astronaut launched by China. Without "Columbia" we might have seen - and still might see - a true reversal of roles at this juncture of history. In the 15th century China was the world's leading, dominant nation, the "center" of the world and the world's leading shipbuilding nation as well. Chinese voyagers are said to have explored the coasts of Asia, Africa and (if one is to believe recent speculations by British investigators) even the Americas. In the 15th century the future of mankind was for China to take, but it was Europe who achieved. The reason for China's failure may have been some quirk in the decisions of China's emperors and empresses - possibly the eunuch advisors to some Empress who may have asked the "obvious" question: "why spend all this treasure to visit wastelands on the rims of civilization?" As they say, the rest is history: it was Europe, not China, that brought modern civilization to the rest of mankind in centuries that followed.

We are today at a frighteningly similar junction, with bean-counters and administrators running our governmental affairs and "intellectuals" writing away in all their brilliance of the benefits of static income redistribution from the "rich" to the "poor". Had we followed their advice in eons past we would still be sitting in the caves, redistributing the catch of the day from those successful in the hunt to those who stayed home in their caves.

But in addition to the overriding rationale for Space exploration and enterprise, there were and are also strict utilitarian (economic) reasons for the Space Shuttle and Space enterprise. I was in charge of the independent assessment effort of the Space Transportation System directed by the White House for NASA in 1970 through 1972, so let me share with the readers the rationale put forth at that time and - equally important - how that rationale compares with the "facts" thirty years later. …

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