A Tragedy and New Beginnings

Since the first flowering of the space age, there are two traditional dates for American presidents to make announcements of grand new space initiatives.

The first is the annual State of the Union address, in which the president not only describes events of the past year, but new initiatives and goals for the next.

This was the context in which, in January 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced that the United States would build a space station within a decade.

Unfortunately, it's been almost two decades, and the station is not yet complete, although we brought in international partners to "help."

The second is the anniversary of the first landing of men on the moon and (not entirely coincidentally) the anniversary of the landing of the first Viking probe on Mars, July 20.

In 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush chose the latter date to give a speech on the Washington Mall, in which, in an attempt to address his perceived lack of the "vision thing," he announced a "Space Exploration Initiative." If any remember that ill-fated announcement, it was as a call to the nation to send Americans to Mars, because the culmination of it was a manned Mars landing in 2019, three decades after the initial announcement. But it was actually much more than that. In the words of the president, we would:

"...return to the moon, this time to stay, and then on to Mars, and settle the solar system."

But few remember any of it now, because it was strangled in the cradle by a cynical space agency that had no desire to do anything beyond earth orbit. The NASA administrator at the time, Richard Truly, actually had his congressional liaison lobby against it on Capitol Hill (one of the reasons that he was later fired and replaced by Dan Goldin).

When the agency put forth its report of what would be involved, it gathered up all of the technology sandboxes and hobbyshops around the NASA centers, and used it as an excuse to justify everything that the agency had done, was doing, and wanted to do. The bill came out to half a trillion dollars. It died aborning.

But these anniversaries have been used for other announcements as well. In 1986, the hope was that the State of the Union address by President Reagan would be a triumphant announcement of the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. (NASA just recently reinitiated this program)

Sadly, instead, the speech, delayed by tragedy, was partly a eulogy. In the first paragraph, the president said:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, distinguished members of the Congress, honored guests and fellow citizens, thank you for allowing me to delay my address until this evening. We paused together to mourn and honor the valor of our seven Challenger heroes . And I hope that we are now ready to do what they would want us to do--go forward America and reach for the stars. We will never forget those brave seven, but we shall go forward.

Barely a week earlier, the space shuttle Challenger had been destroyed on ascent, with the loss of all crew aboard, including Ms. McAuliffe, while millions of schoolchildren (most of whom are now adults) watched, live on television.

Of all the possible shuttle launches to incur such a catastrophe, there couldn't have been a worse one. Launches had become routine in the almost half a decade since the first flight in 1981, and few normally watched them. But the eyes of the nation, including all of the schools, were on this one because of the first teacher astronaut.

Also, this was a flight that "looked like America." In addition to Christa and the pilots, it had Judy Resnick, a female Jewish astronaut from Ohio, Ellison Onizuka, a Japanese-American, Ron McNair, an African-American, and Greg Jarvis, a non-NASA employee, who was doing research for his company, Hughes Space and Communications.

The trauma for the nation was the greatest since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, almost a quarter of a century earlier, because it had grown to believe that NASA could do no wrong, and the sudden sense of its fallibility came as a shock.

I find it particularly memorable because it occurred on my birthday. As someone who was working on the program at the time, I've written my own memories of that date at my weblog. Others' memories of that sad day can be found here and here.

Next Tuesday, January 28, will be the 17th anniversary of that event. It happens to coincide with the next State of the Union address by President George W. Bush.

I hope that he will note the sad anniversary. I also expect him to have somber news regarding foreign affairs, and I expect that he will announce that we will soon be once again actively at war, perhaps within the next couple of weeks.

But rumors abound that he will announce something else, to give us hope for a brighter future, and a vision for not just this nation and world, but for a universe into which we can expand and bring forth unending freedom and opportunity and life in the midst of our monumental struggle against those who would deprive us of all, had they their way.

It is expected that he will announce, if not in this address then in the announcement of the 2004 budget, an initiative to develop new, badly needed power sources for space activities. They will be nuclear power sources, an avenue of research that has been cut off for years for both fiscal and political reasons.

In-space nuclear power will bring the ability to survive the chilly sun-starved two-week nights of the moon. It will power the rockets that can deliver us to Mars in a few weeks, rather than a few months. It will provide the basis for an ability to control asteroids, not just to prevent them from ending our species as they did the dinosaurs, but to harvest their bounty.

The project has been appropriately called Prometheus, after the Titan of Greek mythology who granted humans the gifts of fire and power, previously the privilege of the gods alone. For his beneficence, he was condemned by the gods to an eternity of misery, chained to a rock to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle and regrown to be devoured again and again.

Lord Byron described it best:

TITAN! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity's recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense...

If NASA can deliver such an equivalent boon to us now, it will deserve not punishment, but praise, for as long as humankind exists in the universe.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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