Even though I am an employee and ardent supporter of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's unmanned program, I have never seen such a sour-grape attitude as Heppenheimer's toward the manned space program. With all his griping about "staged space spectaculars," I wonder if he has ever noticed that space exploration, both manned and unmanned, is inherently spectacular.
Heppenheimer writes that the Hindenburg explosion "exposed the flaws in the dirigible as a passenger carrier, " and opened the way for the alternative technology of the airplane. He may see the shuttle as just another obsolescent blimp with sleek, dependable prop-driven planes waiting patiently for congressional funding, but I see the shuttle as being a prop plane in the rough. In all the history of aviation, the price of technological achievement has often been exacted in human life; we pushed on from the first aircraft fatality at the turn of the century to the test pilots at Edwards to the shuttle itself. The anguish and grief of Jan. 28 is, like an assassination, not only for the loss of young, vibrant lives, but also for the eclipse of a national dream.
So what can be done now? Heppenheimer's technological suggestions would essentially scrap the shuttle, while putting the space program on hold for years while new systems are designed, built and tested. The aerospace plane is essentially a military, not a civilian venture, with the additional problem of no state-of-the-art technology on how to get the plane up to the Mach 5 speeds required for scramjet operation.