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Forget the Shuttle and Head for Mars

The craft is too dangerous. Besides, its mission is outmoded.

August 29, 2003|Bruce Murray | Bruce Murray, a former head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is professor emeritus of geology and planetary science at Caltech and co-founder and chairman of the Planetary Society.

The images of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia disappearing against bright blue skies stunned America and the world. Twice in recent history we've had to confront the reality that placing humans in space is terrifically risky as well as expensive. Twice we've had to ask the question: Is what we're doing in space worth dying for? Both times we've ducked the question.

The reality is that shuttle flight, after two catastrophic crashes in only 113 attempts, represents a risk level appropriate only for the most hazardous military wartime operations, not for routine civilian transport to and from low Earth orbit.

And consider the work for which 14 shuttle astronauts have died.

In 1986, Challenger's primary task was to launch a robotic civil communications satellite into high orbit, a particularly inappropriate function. Immediately after the Challenger crash, such tasks were deleted from the shuttle program and cheaper, safer, expendable rocket launches resumed.

Likewise, the mission's goal of serving education by carrying a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, into space was also canceled when her violent death made it clear that only essential personnel should be risking space travel.

As for Columbia's crew of seven, they perished to operate a suite of scientific experiments in low Earth orbit, another task with educational potential but, because the experiments weren't of the highest research priority, not worth the risk of death in the view of most scientists.

Lately, it's the International Space Station that provides justification for the shuttle. The just-released Columbia Accident Investigation Board report states, pragmatically, that the remaining three shuttles should be returned to service as soon as is consistent with fixing the problems revealed by the disaster, because they are essential to constructing the station.

But is the shuttle the right vehicle for the job?

The legendary Max Faget, NASA's director of engineering for human spacecraft design throughout the Apollo years and during early shuttle development, recently answered this question clearly and succinctly. "The space shuttle should be retired and the human space program suspended," he told The Times, "until the nation can build a better vehicle for putting astronauts into [low Earth] orbit."

And perhaps the idea of building the space station should itself be retired. It was originally targeted for initial operations two decades ago. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, it would do very little to advance human exploration of space. Its promised benefits to commercial manufacturing and medical research have long been eclipsed by new technology.

Why didn't the accident investigation board consider such a question? It seemingly restricted its task to evaluating the shuttle only within the context of existing NASA objectives. In fact, questioning the core beliefs of our human space efforts has proved too difficult for most of the review boards that have looked at NASA. Collective denial is easier than acknowledging that the emperor has no clothes. In my estimation, NASA managers and administrators have been victims of this denial, not the villains or fools they are portrayed as in times like the present.

If America's current human space flight efforts are obsolete and empty of purpose, should we stop altogether? Is anything worth dying for when it comes to space?

The answer to that question is yes, indeed. Exploration is worth the risk. It is what fuels human dreams and pushes forward human knowledge.

That was the case when Magellan circumnavigated the globe. It was the case when the Soviet Union and the United States first flew into Earth orbit four decades ago, and it was the case when the Apollo flights resulted in human exploration of the moon.

We need that challenge again. We should resume human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. The only planet other than Earth where our species may have a future is Mars, and that should become our next destination.

Americans have long supported human space flight despite NASA's being bogged down in low Earth orbit for the last three decades. It's time for our political leadership and for NASA to lead once again by embracing Mars as our long-term human destination, a destination worth the risk.

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