Columbia lost, but not a nation


The sudden and sad demise of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew on the frontier of space this month provided a sharp reminder of the risks of spaceflight. Simultaneously, the heartfelt national reaction to the accident reminded us of the intimate connection that Americans have with frontiers in general, and space exploration in particular.

Space exploration is a characteristically American endeavor, going far beyond the sporadic prominence it often receives in mainstream media. That popularity is evidenced by the blockbuster popularity of motion pictures like Star Wars and Apollo 13, the recent polls expressing widespread desires for public space travel, and the virtually ubiquitous interest of our children in space exploration. When Americans are asked how they picture the future, the reply very often includes a vision of routine spaceflight and distant exploration.

This is not surprising. We are a nation bred from generations of explorers from every walk in life, who immigrated to and settled a raw continent, then built a society brimming with success and innovation on the fruits of those explorations.

It is also no surprise that flight of all kinds became a metaphor in the 20th century for the American spirit of exploration. Flight, like continental exploration, closely parallels American notions of freedom, economic expansion, and spiritual inspiration.

One hundred years ago, in 1903, Ohioans Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first flights in powered aircraft. Just 75 years ago, Missourian Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop air crossing of the Atlantic. Just 55 years ago, Californian Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. And from 1969 to 1972, 24 Americans - all Texans at the time - circled or walked on the Moon. Furthermore, by the early 1970s, American engineers, scientists, and technicians from nearly all 50 states had, under NASA's leadership, launched or were building robotic explorers to reconnoiter every planet in our solar system planet save Pluto. The rate of advance and exploration during the first seven decades of the 20th century was electrifying.

In the final quarter of the 20th century, however, America paused from such explorations. Now would be a wonderful time to resume.

A reexamination of our national space program has naturally come with this month's Shuttle accident. That reexamination has reminded us that the exploration and exploitation of the space frontier has brought innumerable advances. These range from communications satellites and household computers to GPS receivers and countless medical discoveries, from a deep-seated appreciation for our one Earth to a broad scientific understanding of the Universe that even the wildest astronomical dreamers could not have imagined at the dawn of the space age.

But there is much more in the promise of space exploration than this. The promise of space is a part of a larger pledge that we all make to ourselves: the promise of a better future. So too, there is national pride in seeing a hopeful future unfold, and there is the promise of new economic expansion. Perhaps most importantly in these difficult days at the dawn of this new century, there is the inspiration space exploration provides -to ourselves, to our companions across the world, and most importantly, to our children.

We are as early in the 21st century, as the Wright brothers were in the 20th century when they traveled to Kitty Hawk and changed the world. This birth of a century gives us a sense of hope and of a new beginning and its open possibilities. Here, now, following the twin tragedies of 9-11 and the loss of Columbia, comes a new opportunity for great dreams, for national pride in optimistic endeavors, and for resolve: we can invigorate the notion of American frontiers again through the exploration of space.

At our footstep is an opportunity to simultaneously honor fallen heroes and inspire a new generation of heroes who will shape a new century. We should finish the space station. We should build a new generation of less expensive and safer space transportation to replace the Shuttle. We should expand scientific exploration of the Earth and heavens. And we should make a lasting commitment to the exploration of the moon and planets by both brave humans and sophisticated robots. We should inspire the world, and we should make history again.

Congress and President Bush should honor the fallen heroes of STS-107 with such a promise. It could be done by investing less than a dime toward the future to match every dollar spent defending ourselves against real and terrible enemies.

There are new frontiers in the thousands of points of light in the heavens above our precious blue planet. It is possible for our generation of Americans to capitalize on this opportunity, to make a historic mark on the world - a mark that could even inspire the whole of our species in the newborn millennium.

If we choose this course, the road will be long and hard, and yes, dangerous. But so were the frontiers that this great nation took as previous challenges.

Will we take this road? I do not know, but our descendants will. They will know whether we made as much of the promise of space now, as our forbearers did with the promise of flight, just one hundred years ago, this year.

Alan Stern is the director of the Department of Space Studies of the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. He is the principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt.

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