After the shock and grief subside, the course of the space program will be determined, as it always has been, by the unsentimental values of domestic and foreign politics.
In the coming deliberations about the role of humans in space, the rhetorical gush will continue about manifest destiny and humankind's passion for exploration, but these cultural figments have never commanded majorities in the down-to-earth Congress. If nourishment of the soul moved politics, the classical performing arts and other manifestations of traditional culture wouldn't have to rely on the tin cup -- an implement unknown to the defense and space establishments.
As for claims and promises of a continuing flow of technological spinoffs from humans aboard the space station and the space shuttle, these have been so mocked by reality that they've been rarely offered in recent years. Space-based communications, weather forecasting, environmental surveillance and planetary research are great achievements of the space program -- all riding on unmanned satellites.
In 1991 the American Physical Society disputed the utility of a manned space program, arguing that "the only reason for putting humans into space is to learn more about how to put more humans into space." Though the shuttle and the space station have long been touted as seedbeds for developing revolutionary industrial materials and processes, industrial participation and cost sharing have been negligible.
Ignited by Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. space program blasted off as a blank-check Cold War competition that swiftly outran the Soviets, planted deep institutional roots in industry and academia, and disbursed pork-barrel goodies nationwide. In spreading its largess, NASA emphasized the politically powerful South and Southwest, regions that previously were technologically thin or bare. The political nature of the space program may be deduced from the fact that, rare among Washington's scientific and technical agencies, NASA has, over several stretches, been headed not by a scientist or engineer but by a politico-manager, as is the case today with space chief Sean O'Keefe. John Gibbons, who was President Clinton's science adviser, noted that the space station flourished in "political states" -- California, Texas, Florida and the Midwest.
In 1993, when the newly inaugurated Clinton contemplated the runaway costs of the space station and its inextricably linked delivery vehicle, the space shuttle, the technological barrenness of these celestial turkeys was clearly spelled out for Clinton and his aides. But rising unemployment in the aerospace industry, and the prospect of voter revenge for NASA cutbacks, easily trumped hopes for fiscal austerity and fears of NASA's traditionally reckless attention to costs.
Gibbons recalled several years ago that at a crucial meeting, he emphasized to the president, Vice President Gore and senior budget officials that "there's no way you can justify this [the space station] just on the basis of science or just on the basis of technology."
The message was understood, Gibbons said, "but Clinton openly was concerned about [terminating the] station as yet another massive potential change in regions of the country that were already being heavily impacted by the defense build-down. . . . He said, 'These folks are headed toward a really rough economic time, not because the marketplace is doing it, because global events are doing it.' And he tried to devise ways both in [military] base closings and in the [space station], and other things, to keep as many of these things as he could moving so that he could temper the rate at which they scaled down from government support." Reaching for a new justification for the shuttle and station, Clinton brought in the Russians -- paid for by the United States -- on the claim that peaceful space work would keep their unemployed experts out of missile mischief.
The great national mourning that followed the Challenger and Columbia tragedies is easily represented as evidence of broad and deep national support for human space exploration -- and has been so construed in public expressions of bereavement and vows of determination to carry on. But repeated surveys of public opinion over nearly two decades reveal extensive public indifference to space exploration and a strong preference for public spending on earthbound scientific and technical endeavors, environmental cleanup, education and health.
Dating from 1981 to 1999, the surveys, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, found that between 9 and 18 percent of respondents during those years believed that the government spent "too little" on space exploration, while 39 to 52 percent felt it spent "too much." Far ahead of space exploration, spending preferences were expressed for "reducing pollution," "improving health care" and "improving education."
Regardless of the findings of the Columbia investigation, the manned space program will survive. The space establishment -- comprising industry, academia and NASA -- is unified behind maintaining the program, while the doubters are scattered. Abandonment of the program would propel squadrons of aggrieved astronauts and former astronauts to the public stage, a prospect not to be relished by legislators who pulled the plug on their dreams.
But perhaps most important of all for the survival of the American manned space program: China is reported to be close to launching its first astronaut into space.
Daniel S. Greenberg, a Washington journalist, is the author of "Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion."