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Challenger, Columbia, and Next Steps

The morning of 28 January 1986, my then-wife and I were sleeping in, having returned home to San Diego from our honeymoon the night before. Next door, just outside our window, construction workers building a house turned on a radio, which woke us up. I heard the words "space shuttle Challenger" and "explosion." I jumped out of bed and turned on the television, with Karin just behind me. The anchor was talking about how it was feared that all were lost, and then they showed the video and I started crying, knowing they were gone.

Yesterday, 1 February 2003, I was watching a show on the TiVo, taking a break from chores, when my daughter called me from her mom's house. "Daddy? Did you hear about the space shuttle?" I switched to live television and, along with the rest of the country, once again found myself watching video of the end of a shuttle and the loss of its crew. Though an awful tragedy, it wasn't quite as personally wrenching for me this time -- I don't know whether because the video this time wasn't so obvious, because after Challenger it wasn't so much of a shock, or both.

What do we do next? The "why do we need to be in space" lobby will certainly use this as an opening, at least according to Time:

Representative Dave Weldon, Republican from Florida and co-chair of the House Aerospace Caucus, foresees a catfight in Congress over any new space expenditures, especially in an era of again ballooning deficits. "The people who opposed space-flight funding are going to come forward again and voice concerns that we should spend the money on something else," he says. "But we are a nation of explorers, and we'll continue to explore the unknown."
The "why do we need humans in space" lobby will use this as well. From CNN this morning:
Rabbi Marc Gellman: We are really at a point where we have to look at not only the expense of manned space exploration, but its effectiveness. The most wonderful thing that we've ever put in space was the telescope, and there isn't a human being on it. And I think we have to look again at whether this is worth the risk of human life.
I find this attitude astonishing -- and thankfully rare. The seven astronauts who died yesterday knew the risk they were taking and did so not only willingly, but enthusiastically, as have explorers throughout the millennia.

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.


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