Space Shuttle Columbia: Goodbye to A Good Old Girl


Note: this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted here with the author's permission. Image: Memorial in Coalwood, West Virginia [enlarge]

HUNSTSVILLE, Ala.-My wife and I have had a personal relationship with a national asset called Columbia for more than 20 years. Linda worked as a graphics artist for Rockwell, the shuttle's builder, back in the 1970s. I came on board with NASA in 1981, the first year Columbia flew. She represented for me the culmination of so many of the hopes and dreams I wrote about in my memoir "Rocket Boys" and in the movie adaptation, "October Sky."

I was on the training team of many of her crews. I was on the pad with her at the Cape where the pad rats always said she was a "good old girl," reliable and steady. She also carried my National Science Fair medal into orbit in 1997, and in 1998 carried a small bolt from one of the rockets I built as a teenager back in Coalwood, W. Va. That was on the same flight that took John Glenn back into orbit. Oh yes, she was a good old girl and, my God, I'm going to miss her.

I'm retired from NASA now, a full-time writer, and my books are mostly about small town life and family. After five years away from the agency, I think I can look objectively at it. I learned from my coal mine superintendent father that dreams and hopes don't hold up mine roofs or dig coal. It's necessary to be hard-headed and tough when it comes to running a coal mine. One of Dad's management points was "Don't be afraid to tell a man he's no good. A man can't get good if he don't know he's bad." He also said, "When things go wrong, don't hunt for someone else to blame. Fix it and get on with business."

Every day, most NASA employees wake up and say to themselves, "Oh boy, I get to work for NASA." Few do it for the pay which, in any case, isn't all that wonderful. My dad would have liked them. He would have also liked Sean O'Keefe, the new NASA Administrator. I know I do. He's hard-headed and tough like my dad. Mr. O'Keefe was baptized by fire on Saturday and he's going through a period of mourning right now. But he's a straight-shooter and a pragmatist. I believe he's going to take a clear-eyed look at where we are as a nation in terms of human spaceflight and make some changes. In fact, even before this tragedy, he had already asked for an Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a machine much simpler than the shuttle to carry astronauts to and from low earth orbit. The OSP sits on top of an expendable rocket such as the Delta IV or the Atlas V. It also has crew ejection seats, is much lighter than the shuttles, and designed for only one purpose, crew transportation.

Although it's not in the present budget, I think it also makes sense to build Apollo-like capsules to serve as rescue and resupply vehicles for the Space Station. They're relatively cheap to construct and would also fly aboard expendable rockets. An OSP plus rescue/supply capsules would give us tremendous flexibility. This doesn't mean that the shuttles should immediately go away, but it does make sense to go forward with machines that allow us to do all that the shuttle does without being completely grounded when there's a mishap.

This will also give us a very nice side benefit, the support of the American commercial launch industry which has to compete with heavily-subsidized European, Russian, and Chinese rockets. The assembly lines at Boeing and Lockheed-Martin would hum if we used their launchers to send up the OSP and rescue/supply space capsules. A vigorous American aerospace industry means a better overall economy so there's value all around.

My dad mined coal because the country needed coal. He used to say, "If coal fails, steel fails. And if steel fails, the country fails." Coal and steel were more than symbols of our power and might as a nation. They were the elements of our industrial success, the basic raw material of the "arsenal of democracy," as President Franklin Roosevelt liked to call us. Human spaceflight is the modern equivalent. It is the shining symbol of our national technological capability, but it also has a more practical side. Unlike robots, humans carry with them a persistent curiosity and return with subjective impressions as well as objective data. The combined information from astronauts and robotic spacecraft feed into the collective technological, informational, and industrial data base of our nation.

The result has been stunning technological achievements not only in aerospace, but also in medical technology, communications, energy, and other diverse fields that sustain our civilization. We delete human spaceflight at the risk of stifling a major factor in technological innovation. It's a subtle concept, but that doesn't mean it's not important. If human spaceflight fails, technology fails. And if technology fails, the country fails.

When Columbia first flew, it didn't take long before her image became part of the national consciousness. Go into any school today and you will most likely find her shape somewhere, on a bulletin board, or in a science classroom, or simply glued to a backpack. She is our metaphor for excellence. In 1986, when the Challenger went down, I was in Japan, training the first Japanese astronauts. Everything was put on hold and I came home. Thirty-two tough months followed but we swore we'd never have another accident, not if hard work and sweat meant anything. I went back to Japan and finished my job while the shuttles flew perfectly, one after another. For over 14 years, we in the NASA family believed we had kept our promise. Perhaps one thing we've learned from Saturday's disaster is something we always knew in our hearts. The only way to be completely safe is not to fly at all. That, of course, is unacceptable.

But now seven wonderful men and women have been lost, along with our sweet Columbia. Sadly, she'll never have her place of honor in the Smithsonian alongside the Wright Flyer or the Apollo 11 mooncraft. Fortunately, her three sisters remain. They're true national assets. Unless there's some unlikely fundamental flaw in their design, I think we should get them back to work, doing what they're designed to do, even with some risk. The astronauts, all volunteers, are willing. I'd go with them if I could.

But let's also state forthrightly if a part of the spaceflight program needs to be improved. After all, to paraphrase my dad, how can we get good if we don't know where we've been bad? Then we should follow another of his guidelines. Let's not blame somebody else for our problems. Let's fix what's wrong and get on with business.

I think that's exactly what Sean O'Keefe has in mind.

Mr. Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, is the author of "Sky of Stone" (Delacorte Press, 2001) and the forthcoming "The Keeper's Son," to be published this fall by St. Martin's Press.

Note: this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

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