Commentary: How to Make the Space Program Soar Again

Remember when the little Sojourner rover chugged over the red soil of Mars? It was the summer of 1997, and pictures from the mission rekindled America's romance with space exploration. Compare that excitement to the public's indifference toward NASA's space shuttle. Until the Columbia and its seven crew members met their terrible end, how many people actually were aware that the spacecraft was in orbit--or cared much what it was doing?

For those of us weaned on model rockets and sci-fi adventures to distant planets, space really was the last great frontier. Sadly, the reality has fallen far short of our dreams. Intrepid explorers were supposed to be mining asteroids by now, or scouting Martian landscapes for signs of life--not just pedaling exercise bicycles to study the effects of weightlessness a couple hundred miles above the Earth. Yet as the 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars showed, space can still stir the restless human imagination.

While the Columbia tragedy makes the spirit ache, it also raises painful questions. Were safety precautions adequate? Were the relatively trivial scientific pursuits worth the human risks? Is America on the right trajectory in space? The answer is no, on all three points. Here is how the U.S. can refocus its space program and inspire the nation again:

-- Retire the shuttle and rethink the space station. Yes, these craft are incredible feats of engineering and the crews are brave--even heroic. "Without people like them, we would have never left the cave," says Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. But there's not much reason to keep the space station in orbit, except as a destination for the shuttle, and the shuttle has little utility but to ferry astronauts to the station. "The talents of these incredible people are being wasted," says Rick N. Tumlinson, president of Space Frontier Foundation. "I want to see them going to Mars."

-- So go to Mars, Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter--and do it now. The technology and the dollars aren't there yet to send astronauts, but robots are willing and able. Imagine the excitement when a spacecraft named Cassini gets to Saturn, in July, 2004, and later sends a probe parachuting through the thick atmosphere of Titan, the planet's largest moon. Also next year, sons of Sojourner are scheduled to scamper over Mars, searching for evidence of water--the key ingredient for extraterrestrial life. And NASA has ambitious plans for a ship to orbit three giant icy moons of Jupiter--Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa. We need to make sure these missions--and more--are fulfilled.

-- Then, improve spacecraft to send humans deeper into space. "It's in man's nature to want to explore," explains John Creighton, chief technical pilot for Boeing Co. and a former space shuttle commander. "If manned exploration stopped, so would 90% of the funding." But we need better, safer, cheaper ways to ferry people into orbit, such as a mini space plane that would piggyback on a rocket and glide home. And for deep-space voyagers, we need new propulsion systems. If NASA stopped pouring more than $7 billion per year into the shuttle and space station, we could fund development of spacecraft with small nuclear reactors, or engines that spew out ions, or sails that can soar on the solar wind. That would speed trips to Mars and other planets, reducing the need to study the long-term effects of weightlessness in a space station.

-- Tap the ingenuity of U.S. companies. The Pathfinder was a bargain, at $265 million, because the mission team used many off-the-shelf components. Now, companies are doing everything from building cutting-edge space probes to experimenting with rocket designs. It's essential to inject these ideas more quickly into government programs, says John Higginbotham, chairman of venture-capital firm SpaceVest.

The Columbia tragedy could be a brave beginning, in which NASA's existing budget is consecrated to visionary ideas. "We're on the verge of a second Space Age," says James W. Benson, chairman of SpaceDev Inc., a Poway (Calif.) company that recently built a suitcase-size satellite to study gases and dust in space. Clearly, the human species will never stop dreaming of exploring the stars.

By John Carey

With Otis Port in New York and Stanley Holmes in Seattle

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