It is difficult to put into words the sadness that I feel when I think about the Columbia space shuttle
disaster. At the time this piece is being written, the root cause
is still being investigated and may never be properly determined.
Some say that the disaster exposes the shortcomings of our faith in technology--a faith that is rapidly falling out of favor in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst and the resulting industry meltdown. The same people feel that we should pull back and not risk lives on dangerous ventures like manned space exploration. I pity those who feel this way.
There were probably pessimists and naysayers on the shore when the first flimsy rafts and dugouts ventured out into the open sea, and at the village edge pointing and sneering at the backs of the first adventurers to leave the familiar environs of home. As people extended their reach to lands and seas far beyond their homeland's horizon, those detractors were not only proven wrong, but also myopic and narrow-minded as well.
Technology is a tool, and can only achieve what we make of it. To blame technology for what happened is like blaming a fatal fall on the ladder instead of on the person who failed to secure it properly.
Technology did not fail the crew of the Columbia. I believe that it will eventually be determined that--like the Challenger before it--the Columbia was a victim of engineering design shortcomings exacerbated by budget-driven management error. Alerts and recommendations for better designs and operating procedures were ignored, and shuttle operations were carried out with an attitude of complacency and wishful thinking that is shocking given the seriousness of the endeavor. It has even been determined that managers turned down requests for an inspection of the shuttle by satellite before re-entry.
We need to take the Columbia disaster and make it a rallying cry to recapture the spirit that made the American space program the best in the world. Whatever is created to replace the Space Shuttle must implement the level of safety and performance necessary to become a viable and reliable space travel system.
We should increase research efforts in the areas of advanced propulsion and life-support technologies, so that mankind's reach can expand to the edges of our solar system, and eventually beyond. Only by exploration and development of the resources and discoveries resulting from a vigorous and well-funded space program can we expand beyond the cradle that is Earth.