Last Saturday, the shuttle Columbia, including its crew of seven, was lost over Texas during the landing attempt that would have returned it to Florida. While the loss was a shock to all involved, as well as to the public that watched the investigation unfold on television and radio, it showed how much the public cares about space exploration.
In the numerous news specials that I watched over the weekend, not one reference was made about the possible end of the space program, even though seven people died.
Similar to the tragic loss of the shuttle Challenger almost exactly 17 years ago, the public seems to have a newly stirred interest in exploration of the by now proverbial “final frontier,”and the general outcry seems to be for a bigger budget set aside for NASA and the shuttle program.
Maybe this is even the moment to start discussing plans for a new shuttle. NASA has been trying to get the funding for a new breed of shuttles that would be safer and possibly even cheaper to operate. Since the prototype for the currently used breed of shuttles was built in the 1970s (aptly named Enterprise), advances have been made that could be incorporated into a newly designed shuttle. And time for a new shuttle it is.
The Columbia was on its 28th flight when the accident occurred, and of the three other shuttles still in the fleet –the Endeavor, Atlantis and the Discovery — some have flown as many as 30 missions.
The fleet is receiving painstaking checkups, and by now every part has been replaced numerous times, making them still safe to use. The technology is outdated, however, and a new breed of shuttles is more than warranted.
It is good to see, that a mission that is first and foremost one of peaceful exploration still holds the public’s interest.
Often enough, technology has advanced by way of human beings’ efforts to find a better way to kill each other. During World War II, the many advances made in chemical warfare led to advances in the chemical industry still in use even today.
The Navy also invented a device then called fathometer to tell the depth of water the ships were currently in. This device led directly to the explanation of the model for plate tectonics and completely revised the field of geology. It revealed the geological formations existing under the water’s surface for the first time.
Now should be the time to move away from this approach, and the space program is a prime candidate, as the International Space Station that is currently being built in the earth’s orbit already offers a place for scientists from many nations to work together as a team.
It is also often misunderstood that the program only teaches us things about space. It also offers a better understanding of how and why things work on Earth, supporting experiments in biology and other sectors that can only be conducted in the zero gravity environments.
Another outcome is even more valuable: What could possibly bring this planet more together than countries peacefully working with each other to explore the planet?
Sebasitan Meyer is a junior majoring in environmental science.