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ISSUE 116 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/21/2003

Nation's dreams crash with shuttle

By Annie Rzepecki
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 21, 2003

July 20, 1969. The world changes forever. We have done it. Man has set foot on the moon. Apollo 11’s mission was a complete success, paving the way for more miraculous discoveries to come.

February 1, 2003. The second American space shuttle explodes, killing six Americans and one Israeli. The nation wonders about the future of the space program and points fingers in an attempt to figure out what went wrong.

Today, it is taken for granted that man has walked on the moon and floated in space. The wonder of it has worn off for many people. But even for those whose hearts are still full of curiosity for what is out there, they sometimes forget the prices paid and the lives lost in space exploration.

Doesn’t anyone remember that the very first Apollo mission didn’t even make it off the launch pad? A blazing fire engulfed the entire ship killing three astronauts who gave their lives for something they loved. Yet we pressed on. After ten more Apollo missions, moon orbits, and thousands of hours in simulators, NASA decided it was ready to send the next one to the moon.

What if we had stopped after Apollo 1, or after the debilitating attack on Pearl Harbor? What if Columbus had turned around due to bad weather, sickness, or grim prospects? What would the world be like if people weren’t willing to die for their dreams and for humanity as a whole? I wouldn’t want to live in such a hopeless world.

John F. Kennedy once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Have Americans become so lazy that we only pay attention to the space program when shuttle debris is plastered across every TV channel and every newspaper page? And then we point our fingers at the poor NASA engineers, accusing them of carelessness.

It is easy to confuse carelessness with frugalness. Over the last few years, the national government has cut space program funding severely. It has been impossible for NASA to maintain the shuttles the way they should, much less look forward to new space ventures.

In 1995 President Clinton decided to lump together space shuttle funds with the space station budget, creating a new category called “Human Space Flight.” Because federal funding for Human Space Flight was only $6 billion a year, the shuttle program was shortchanged while the budget for the space station kept growing out of control. Since the space station and shuttle program have been lumped together, it has been easy for funds from the old shuttle account to be transferred to the space station account without having to notify Congress. In 1997 alone, NASA transferred $200 million from shuttle reserve funds to the space station account.

The space station is projected to cost roughly $17 billion more than its original budget. However, NASA’s annual budget has remained at $15 billion for the last 10 years, therefore not keeping up with inflation or cost overruns.

Despite some technological advances to the shuttles and space station, the reality is that the scientists who are currently in the space station are conducting only 20 hours of scientific research a week. The rest of the time is devoted to maintenance of the station, which is, arguably, cheaply made.

It is understandable that space program funding is down when one considers the world situation today. Many more pressing problems are on the minds of Americans, but we shouldn’t give up our dreams. Imagination and curiosity should not fall to fear and terrorism. Scientific research and exploration of outer space are priceless because they open up deeper layers of human understanding. The space program is where ideas become reality. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg.

Although the loss of the Columbia and its crew is sickening, we must remember that every day, people are lost in pursuit of a dream or a job. It has happened before, and it will happen again. This may not be the right time for the nation to become excited about space flight again, but we can’t let the Columbia disaster kill the desire to explore what is out there.

Something is a waste only if nothing is learned from it.

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