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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?

The 1960s had been a boom time for dreamers and visionaries, a moment in American history when a person could plausibly talk about living in orbiting space colonies, or building an antigravity machine, or crossing the galaxy in a particle-scooping contraption called a ramjet. NASA in the early 1960s made preliminary plans for a manned mission to Mars. But the technological challenges of keeping people alive in the hostile environment of space were not trivial, and the distance to Mars daunted even the visionaries. Pragmatism triumphed -- or short-sightedness, as critics would argue.

In 1969, soon after Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walked on the Sea of Tranquility, government bean-counters cut the projected NASA budget for 1971. Three moon missions were soon canceled.

Then came the decision to build a fleet of reusable shuttles. This spaceship would go only into Low Earth Orbit, a couple of hundred miles off the surface.

The Challenger disaster inspired a presidential affirmation of man's destiny in the heavens. President Reagan, speaking to the nation, directed a special message to children and quoted an obscure sonnet written by an American airman killed in World War II.

"It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons," Reagan said. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.' "

President Bush struck a similar tone when he addressed the nation yesterday:

"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery. . . . Our journey into space will go on."

In recent years, NASA has earned headlines for multibillion-dollar budget overruns caused by construction of the International Space Station. Longtime administrator Daniel S. Goldin stepped down in 2001, replaced by Sean O'Keefe, reputed to be a management expert more than a space buff.

Already there had been many years of debate about how and when to replace the shuttle. It had survived in part because it was the workhorse for the space station. The station, currently occupied by three astronauts, needs the shuttle for delivery of heavy cargo and parts, and for boosts into higher orbits.

Many space enthusiasts would like NASA to be more ambitious and announce a new challenge, such as a human mission to Mars.

"We should risk lives only when the game is worth it, and the game is worth it only when we're exploring the unknown," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society.

Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, said, "Even though we may have a halt or a delay in the space shuttle program, it's important that NASA not slow its overall plans for space exploration."

Space travel advocates say that human space-flight continues to have meaning above and beyond the practical, immediate benefits of microgravity experiments and engineering innovations. Going into space, they say, reflects something fundamental about the human spirit, and the United States specifically.

"The space program has become an icon of America," said Richard Berendzen, an American University physics professor and former NASA consultant. "We are the leading space nation. Aside from the benefits that come from it, and aside from the benefits of exploring the vast unknown, it's matter of global stature."

In NASA's history, few spacecraft had the stature of Columbia, the first shuttle to fly. On April 12, 1981, in mission STS-1, John Young and Robert Crippen rode the ship into space and orbited Earth 36 times before making a dramatic landing on a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Getting the Columbia into space and back required continual maintenance. Recently, it went through a major overhaul.

Up close, the Columbia showed her age. In 2001, a reporter walking beneath Columbia in an Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center could see the innumerable smudges and scratches on the heat tiles. New, black tiles had replaced the beat-up gray ones. Workers carefully repaired individual tiles using a paste and sandpaper.

To a nonengineer it was an astonishingly complex piece of engineering, sprouting a profusion of hoses, cables, tubes, and pipes. Columbia sat in the hangar like a patient undergoing heart surgery.

A technician, Mark Ham, applied an electrical wire to harden the paste on a broken tile. He paid attention to the tiniest details.

"I'm trying to make it look good," he said.

And now that's all gone.

People who work on the program understand that failure is part of the enterprise. When he retired in 2001, Dan Goldin had a message for the assembled NASA staff at headquarters in Washington: "Be bold and don't fear failure. Treat failure as a blessing, because mediocre goals are poison."

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