Racing Through Space Had Become Routine

Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 2, 2003

Early yesterday morning, seven people plunged toward Earth in an aging spaceship. They were more than 200,000 feet above the surface, traveling 18 times the speed of sound. It was, everyone thought, a routine flight.

Things once unimaginable, the stuff of science fiction, had become humdrum. The astronauts of Columbia, flight STS-107, had blasted into orbit and worked for two weeks in an airless realm of nearly zero gravity. They studied lightning from a vantage point above the thunderstorms. They grew cancer and bone cells in microgravity. They talked to other astronauts living in orbit in the International Space Station. All this was amazing at one level -- and yet so ordinary.

Relatively few Americans yesterday morning were thinking about the astronauts' return to Earth.

There is a special NASA language for tragedy. "Obviously a major malfunction" was the phrase heard 17 years ago after the Challenger exploded. "A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared," a voice said this time.

"Those of us who are close to the program know it's never routine. The difficult has been made to look routine because of the quality of NASA's work," said John Logsdon, director of the space policy at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. "Some of the romance is gone, except when bad things happen. Then we remember these are brave people willingly taking risks. This is about the riskiest thing a person can do."

When the body blow of the tragedy is absorbed, the space community will have to decide what to do next. The flaw must be found and fixed. But bigger questions will be asked about where the country's space program is going.

Wes Huntress, a former NASA associate administrator, said the space agency will have to decide what to do with the shuttle fleet, but he doubts that human spaceflight itself is in peril. "We'll continue doing space exploration with human beings, because it's now part of our humanity to do so," he said.

NASA's declared policy has been safety first: no accidents. Launches get scrubbed at the last second for a seemingly minor leak or too many clouds. There is minimal margin of error when people are sent through the stratosphere attached to half a million gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

The public, supportive of the space program in the main, pays less attention when things go smoothly. This happened even during the Apollo program, not long after men set foot on the moon. It happened in the early years of the space shuttle program. Two-and-a-half years after the Challenger blew up, the shuttle program returned to flight and soon disappeared, yet again, from the broader cultural radar.

Roy Bridges, director of the Kennedy Space Center, told a reporter in 2001, "We make it look easy, and that's the good news and the bad news."

The U.S. space program was born amid panic, after the stunning announcement by the Soviet Union in 1957 that it had put a spiky satellite named Sputnik into orbit. The Mercury program gave the United States a new kind of hero, astronauts with what journalist Tom Wolfe later called "the right stuff." Science fiction fueled the Space Age; "Star Trek" helped persuade a whole generation of people that they would someday travel at Warp 8.

The space race was a Cold War competition, and for a while the Russians seemed to do everything quicker and better, with larger rockets, while the United States' efforts kept blowing up or fizzling on the pad. A capsule fire in 1967 took the lives of three American astronauts. But the United States still won the race to the moon, and then faced a difficult question: Where do we go next?

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