Columbia Crew, We Hardly Knew Ye

A number of commentators have pointed out that, prior to the loss of Columbia a couple of weeks ago, very few people could have named the crew members.

Many didn't even know that there was a shuttle flight in progress, particularly because it was a relatively long mission (over two weeks) and memories of the earlier launch had faded.

Despite the fact that we didn't know them, the nation went into shock and mourning, in a way that we wouldn't have if seven people, perhaps even those same seven people, had been killed in an auto accident. Of course, as in 1986, what we were really mourning was the blow to one of the symbols of our nation's leadership in technology--our space program. But it's only human and natural to transfer the grief for lost hardware (we lost a quarter of an essentially irreplaceable shuttle fleet) and dreams to the more emotionally-accessible humans who rode it and represented them.

But I found the reaction interesting for another reason.

Many of my generation and older, who remember the glory days of Apollo, seem to be indulging in a futile (and potentially counterproductive) nostalgia for that era. They would return to the days when astronauts were on the cover of Life magazine, and the nation watched, breathlessly, their exploits on the new frontier above us. We knew their names, and the names of their wives, and children, and dogs and goldfish, and they were our heroes--our emissaries to the great beyond.

If only NASA could recapture the spirit of those bygone days--then we would once again have a real space program, and move on to settle the moon, and Mars. It only requires another president with the vision to make it so!

There is a danger in such thinking in that, attempting to avoid the mistakes of the past 30 years post-Apollo, we may be repeating the original mistake that was Apollo, leaping again too quickly to an idealistic goal while continuing to neglect the infrastructure, the foundation required to make it economically and politically sustainable.

The problem with our space program isn't that we no longer know the astronauts' names. We should strive for a future in which we don't know the astronauts' names, just as today we don't know the names of the millions of "aeronauts" (i.e., airline passengers) who take to the skies each day. Our problem is that right now, we have the worst of both worlds--space has become sufficiently routine that it's become boring, except when we have spectacular failures, but not so much so that it's affordable for the rest of us.

I too want to see men (and women) return to the moon, and walk the red sands of Mars, but I want to see much more. My vision of our space future is not another grand, no-expense barred, government-funded expedition to another planet, which most of us sit back on the ground and contentedly watch, cheering on our astronaut heroes, and buying baseball trading cards with their names on them.

No, I have a much broader, inclusive vision for space.

It involves a low earth orbit with coorbiting tourist hotels and resorts, with orbital sound stages and sports venues, for filming movies and broadcasting new types of dance and games. There are research laboratories, in which experiments are conducted in biotechnology and nanotechnology, that might be too hazardous to be safely performed on earth. There are interorbital transports to allow easy passage from one platform to another. There are orbital hangars for constructing the ships that will take people off to other orbs, and for inspecting and maintaining the space transports about to undergo the potentially hazardous entry back into earth's atmosphere, avoiding any more incidents like that which occurred on Feb. 1.

There are cruise hotels continuously transiting between earth and moon, with ports of call to the lunar surface, perhaps to settlements there--more tourist resorts, and perhaps industrial facilities, processing the resources of that sphere into useful products--metal forged for the construction of more ships, silicon for solar cells that will provide power for the spaceborne, and ultimately even provide clean unlimited energy to the home planet, life-giving oxygen and water, food and rocket fuels.

Perhaps asteroids have been brought into higher orbits to be similarly mined for their own precious metals, or water and carbon compounds. They may even be asteroids that were otherwise potential threats to the planet, now being managed and harvested instead.

And all of it is sustained not by a massive government bureaucracy that must go annually to Congress, hat in hand, begging for the funds to continue it.

Rather, it will largely pay for itself, by providing services, products and entertainment to real markets--the millions of people who would work, play, and yes, explore space if the cost were within their means. And the level of activities implied by it means that it will be within their means, as the unit costs of space operations drop, and the world grows wealthier. And we won't know the names of the people going to and from space, because there will be far too many of them. But we won't need to, and the occasional accident, even a fatal one, will be no more newsworthy than a bus accident.

In a future like that, it won't be necessary for a NASA to ask the government for funding for a Mars expedition--a National Geographic Society, or Planetary Society could afford one. It might even be paid for by television (or Internet) broadcast rights, and of course, we may once again know the names, and biographies of the explorers.

But if people want more than to simply watch, or contribute funding so that "explorers" can go to the Red Planet, but rather, actually stake out land there themselves, in search of adventure or freedom, it could very well be affordable to do so, just as it was for the Mormons and Pilgrims before them. And for them, the most important names will be their own, the ones that they will pass on their offworld progeny.

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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