Space exploration - humanity's endeavor

You might expect that the third American spaceship tragedy would evoke in me, a science writer who has covered human spaceflight from the get go, a sense of déjà vu. It doesn't. Things are different this time.

America was racing its cold war rival Russia to the moon when three astronauts perished in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire Jan. 27, 1967. That rivalry, although muted, remained when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded Jan. 28, 1986. Today, the United States and Russia work shoulder to shoulder to build and operate the International Space Station - humanity's outpost on the threshold of interplanetary space.

The loss of Columbia and its heroic crew may ground American space ships for a time. But space station operations need not miss a beat. Russian robotic Progress freighters can continue to supply the station crew. A Russian Soyuz craft stands by at the station to evacuate the crew in an emergency. If American shuttles still are grounded when it's time for a crew change, a Soyuz can do the job. Neither of the two nations that have led humanity to the ultimate frontier any longer face its perils alone.

This gives practical meaning to shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore's promise that humanity's exploration of space flight will continue in spite of tragic setbacks. With Canada, Europe, and Japan in the station partnership, much of the industrialized world is involved. Spaceflight has ceased to be primarily a matter of national interest. It has truly become a human endeavor. China, which now has space flight aspirations, will undoubtedly learn this lesson.

Mr. Dittemore and other NASA officials also promise to find what went wrong with Columbia and fix it. Now that does evoke a sense of déjà vu. NASA promised to do that in 1967. It found that management failures and moon- race pressures were more to blame for the Apollo 1 fire than any technical faults. The "fix" consisted in establishing a "zero defect" culture that made safety and reliability priority No. 1. It was the key ingredient in the success of the moon exploration program.

When Challenger exploded, NASA again promised to find the problem and fix it. An independent commission - established in spite of bureaucratic evasiveness - again found the problem lay more with people than with hardware. Changing national priorities with attendant budget cuts plus bureaucratic rivalry had fostered a culture of "minor defect" tolerance. Tough standards and tighter procedures reestablished safety's overriding priority - at least for a time.

One wonders whether the investigation into Columbia's mishap will repeat this scenario. Annual reports of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel have, for several years, warned that safety's priority seems to be slipping. Some members of Congress have expressed similar concern. None of these warnings challenge the safety commitment of people involved with the shuttle program.

Yet with continuing budget downholds and rising space station costs, there's temptation to defer seemingly noncritical shuttle safety upgrades. As for replacing the aging shuttles with 21st century ships, this much discussed necessity seems to be perpetually on hold.

It's just 100 years since the Wright brothers were barely skimming above the sand. Now globe-girdling aircraft knit the world so tightly, a partnership of nations can pursue a larger vision.

Humanity is turning its face outward to the universe in a practical way that was unavailable before. To profit from this opportunity, the United States needs to commit itself to a space program that is sustainable and consistently funded.

Robert C. Cowen has covered science for the Monitor for 52 years.

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