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Space Shuttle and the Future

February 09, 1986

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.

Nor can there be any assurance that the so-called aerospace plane, which Heppenheimer promotes as a NASA cure-all, will be magically immune from disaster in either operations or testing. Those "tried and true unmanned rockets" could be a backup, but are ultimately a step backwards; there is also the staggering additional cost in time and money of redesigning those payloads slated for shuttle deployment to another form of launch.

And unmanned technology can only go so far; we need humans to rescue and fix satellites in orbit, perform tuneups on the space telescope, and return balky machines to Earth.

Voyager's amazing pictures make us only more eager to send human observers to explore the solar system. Perhaps we will take a lesson from observers to explore the solar system. Perhaps we will take a lesson from the Europeans, who are developing a more specialized shuttle that will lack the capability to deploy satellites, yet still advances our ability to have people work in space.

Maybe Congress and the country will see that the complexity and worth of the space program has outgrown its shoestring budget, and will start asking why we spend money on ineffective Sgt. York anti-aircraft weapon when our astronauts are denied safety measures that can't fit on that shoestring.

And, hopefully, this tragedy will draw us all closer together toward a common goal of pushing on with the exploration of outer space as the most fitting and precious monument we can make to the seven who gave their lives.


North Hollywood

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