Manned missions crucial for nation, our human spirit
By Senator Bill Nelson
February 9, 2003
Why conquer space?
Inevitably, the question is being asked in the aftermath of our second shuttle disaster -- this one, like the first, tragically killing seven of the best and brightest from planet Earth. As glib as it may sound, the answer -- like a mountain climber facing Mount Everest -- is partly that we explore our universe because it's there.
By nature, Americans are explorers, discoverers and adventurers. It's part of our character, part of our can-do spirit. If we lose that inner drive, we risk becoming a second-rate nation. As President John F. Kennedy put it in a 1962 speech at Rice University: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Another, more tangible part of the answer lies in the long list of medical and other technological advancements that space exploration has spawned for the good of mankind. And, in these perilous times, it has provided our nation with unparalleled communication, intelligence and military capabilities.
Moreover -- as the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan continue construction in orbit of the international space station -- the shared effort provides a unique opportunity for diverse nations to work in peace and harmony toward establishing a permanent foothold in space for the expansion of knowledge and understanding.
It was in that same cooperative spirit that Israel's first astronaut went into orbit this past month on the 28th flight of the space shuttle Columbia. Payload specialist Ilan Ramon and the six Americans aboard willingly braved the great risk involved -- a risk we all recognized but kept at the back of our minds until Columbia disintegrated over Texas last weekend.
As we mourn this tragic loss, our first duty is to find out what caused the shuttle to break up during re-entry. In contrast to its uneven performance following the Challenger disaster 17 years ago, NASA last week proved remarkably open and forthcoming at the start of its current probe. Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman personally examined the widely scattered debris as head of an outside panel conducting a parallel investigation. Oversight committees from the Senate and House will begin our own inquiries in a joint hearing on Capitol Hill this Wednesday.
Congress shares with the White House and our space agency an obligation to move promptly but thoroughly, learn what went wrong, and take every step to ensure the safety of future missions by the three remaining space shuttles in our fleet.
We also share responsibility for deciding where America's space program goes from here.
Critics of human spaceflight suggest it's time to mothball our shuttles and leave future space endeavors to robots and other sophisticated machines. Some would have us retreat from space exploration and focus instead on concerns closer to home.
Technologies developed for NASA's satellites, aviation systems and spacecraft have touched, improved and even saved human lives in hundreds of ways -- from cordless tools, home and automobile insulation, water filters and smoke detectors to CAT scans, MRIs, mammograms and kidney dialysis machines.
We can thank satellites orbiting the Earth for more accurate weather forecasts, including hurricane and other storm warnings; and for instantly beaming television, telephone and computer communication into our homes from around the world.
Amid the new threats posed by terrorism, rogue nations and the spread of nuclear and biological weapons, America's security depends on our continued presence in space.
Satellites give the United States access to all parts of the globe -- enabling us to keep an unblinking eye on those that might harm us, to communicate instantly, and to navigate, detect and target without error.
Unmanned vehicles contribute to much of our progress in space. Mariner 9 orbited and Viking 1 landed on Mars. Pioneer 11 went to Jupiter, and the giant Cassini is on its way to Saturn. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory plans four more launches this year -- including two Mars Rover missions and telescopes to measure infrared and ultraviolet radiation.
The Hubble Space Telescope, responding to instructions from scientists on Earth, has unlocked secrets of our universe and provided stunning views of Mars.
But the Hubble was deployed by the space shuttle, and it is space-walking astronauts who maintain and repair the telescope in orbit.
In 113 flights since Columbia was first launched in 1981, astronauts aboard U.S. space shuttles have conducted thousands of critical scientific experiments beyond the capabilities of radio-controlled robots.
Aside from practical considerations, it has been the experiences of astronauts that have captured the public's imagination and its support of space exploration.
The president rightly declared at last week's memorial service that abandoning space exploration is not an option. We must continue to explore and discover, with both manned and unmanned space vehicles.
As we find and fix the cause of Columbia's demise, there are three key ways we can honor the seven brave astronauts who sacrificed their lives for a higher cause. We must ensure safer passage for those who journey into space aboard the space shuttles; place higher priority on development of the next generation of manned space vehicles; and, set clear and visionary goals for our future role in space.
In building this great nation, our frontier once was westward. For more than four decades now, it has been inward and upward. Inward to our souls. Upward to the heavens. To turn back now would be like Lewis and Clark deciding 200 years ago there was no need to venture beyond the Mississippi because America had all it needed back east.
They were not so foolish. And neither are we.
We don't know what we'll yet discover on this final frontier -- perhaps a cure for cancer, maybe a solution to global warming or other ways to better preserve our environment.
But we do know that -- if we are to prosper as a nation -- we must renew our commitment to reach for the stars. The quality of our lives here on Earth depends on it.
The quality of our spirit does, too.