The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Columbia lifts off on its final mission

Time to ask the big questions

Is Columbia the most tragic example of the failure of the space exploration paradigm?

Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the history of space has a few dates etched into their brains: October 4, 1957; April 12, 1961; July 20, 1969. Also there, sadly, are January 27, 1967; January 28, 1986, and now, February 1, 2003. The Space Age has given us its share of triumphs and tragedies, and while the tragedies are relatively modest when put into a global perspective — 21 deaths in just under 42 years of human spaceflight — it makes them no less painful.

Despite these tragedies, the US space program has forged ahead. After Apollo 1 NASA quickly worked to determine the cause of the accident, fix that and other problems with the Apollo spacecraft, and was flying again in time land on the Moon before 1970, as President Kennedy had asked. The interregnum after Challenger was longer — there was no space race with the Soviets then — but in time a revamped shuttle fleet was flying again. In both cases there was broad public support for maintaining a slightly modified status quo.

Today, there has been a desire expressed by many people inside and outside of NASA to quickly determine what happened to Columbia, fix the problem, and start flying again. Even if there wasn’t pressure to get the shuttle flying again so that it can support the International Space Station, this desire is an understandable one, even a noble one: a refusal to give up in the face of adversity, just as in the case with past tragedies. As the saying goes, if you get thrown off a horse, you need to get right back on it — presumably, after figuring out why you got thrown off in the first place.

The danger in this approach is that this gives NASA, or the space community in general, little time to reflect on the current state of space exploration and development. The situation in 2003 is different than 1967, when the space program’s goals were clear cut, or even 1986. Even before the Columbia tragedy, it was clear that the space activities in general worldwide — commercial, civil government, and military — were dysfunctional, if not downright broken. Space access, both manned and unmanned, is still too expensive to support more than a few applications. The reliability of space transportation is also a problem, from numerous launch delays to catastrophic failures, such as the recent failures of a Proton/Block DM and an Ariane 5 ECA. There are too many launch vehicles chasing too few payloads, with, paradoxically, even more expendable vehicles under development. Human space flight relies today on only two vehicles: the Space Shuttle, an expensive vehicle that has now suffered two catastrophic failures in 113 flights; and Russia’s Soyuz, which is chronically underfunded. This puts at risk the tens of billions of dollars invested to date in the International Space Station, a project years behind schedule that has yet to live up to even basic expectations.

Space transportation is not the only focus of problems. The commercial space industry is suffering from an overall glut of supply: from launch vehicles to satellite manufacturers to on-orbit communications capacity. The remote sensing business has failed to materialize, and many of the existing companies are now heavily reliant on government business for their survival. The failures of several satellite communications ventures garnered enough publicity that “Iridium” became synonymous in the business world for any hugely expensive failure.

Government space programs are no better than their commercial brethren. While much has been said about NASA’s continual battles for more funding, it is in far better shape than other programs around the world, which must either beg for a tiny fraction of NASA’s budget or, particularly in ESA’s case, endure internecine battles among its member nations regarding even modest programs. While these agencies are pursuing a number of excellent projects, none of them have the goals or the vision to capture the interest and enthusiasm of the general public. Those proposals that seem to have the best prospects of resonating with the general public — notably, human exploration of Mars — are considered either too expensive or too far in the future to be officially adopted by these agencies.

page 2: fundamental problems, fundamental questions >>

Even before the Columbia tragedy, it was clear that the space activities in general worldwide were dysfunctional.