Flying High and Fast

The future – even the wisdom – of this nation’s manned space program has come under predictable criticism in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Respected columnist Paul Krugman raised the challenge on these pages earlier this week, arguing that sending men and women into outer space is unnecessarily dangerous, too costly and that, overall, NASA’s efforts have been a big flop. Put an end to the manned space program, he argued, until new technology makes it cheaper and safer. Krugman, and other critics who join him, could not be more wrong-headed.
If the Krugmans of the world had been around 100 years ago, they would have argued against Wilbur and Orville Wright’s fantastic aviation experiments for those very same reasons.

Queen Isabella would have turned up her nose to Christopher Columbus’ plea for ships to sail around the world. “Just toss a bottle with a message in it into the ocean,” she might have retorted. “Manned exploration of the high seas is too costly, too dangerous. You might fall off the edge of the world.”

The point being that all exploration entails risks. More important, all exploration anticipates the unexpected. The history of science is filled with examples of happy accidents – like the discovery of penicillin – that wouldn’t have come about if someone somewhere weren’t pushing the envelope of discovery.

NASA has published an entire book on the spin-off benefits of the space program, from medicine to technological marvels that no one dreamed might someday exist when men first dared to break the bounds of Earth’s gravity and venture into the void beyond our planet’s atmosphere.

Critics argue that all these discoveries and ancillary benefits would have accrued to us without risking human life. But would we have made the investment?

Landing robots on the moon is not the stuff to fire the imagination. Viewing Neil Armstrong setting foot on our nearest neighbor in space, hearing him utter those immortal words – “One small step . . .” – was an event burned into the memories of everyone who witnessed that historic feat.

Without manned space flight, our nation’s interest in space exploration would dwindle. The romance would be gone. We already take it for granted, even with lives on the line.

Is it too risky? Statistically, the shuttle program has been better than 98 percent successful. Typical for experimental flight, which is what it is. The men and women who volunteer to fly into space know the risks and accept them gladly. Who among us wouldn’t love to join them, knowing full well the danger?
Do we need to discover better propulsion systems, safer means of re-entry, ways to make space flight accessible to more people?

Absolutely.

Is the space shuttle a flying brick, an albatross of a spacecraft that people will one day marvel anyone dared fly in?

Without a doubt.

But the Wright Flyer is a far cry from a modern aircraft, too. Innovation is driven by necessity. Take people out of the equation, and the sense of urgency will diminish and the pace of development will slow to a crawl.

Is it worth the cost?
History teaches us that the benefits from this sort of experimentation, this outreach into the unknown, will offer unimaginable paybacks in the future.

Since 1903, when the Wrights first proved humans could soar like the birds, it was, as John Glenn has noted, only a question of how high and how fast man could go.

Copyright, 2003, Jeffrey C. Bruce. All rights reserved.

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