After Columbia: why we must still boldly go

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Mourn Columbia – but remember that man has always been driven by risk. The loss of the US space shuttle Columbia has renewed debate about the future of space exploration, with many suggesting that manned space missions pose an ‘unacceptable risk’. To which a considered response might be: go paint it on the wall of your cave.

All attempts at discovery involve risk. It is in the nature of experiments and breaking new ground that nobody knows exactly what will happen. There is no such thing as a free ride to the future, and the path of progress has often proved steep and bloody. The alternative, however, is to hang around at the bottom.

The great naval explorers took their lives in their hands to sail the unknown world, at a time when doom-mongers declared that they would fall off the edge of the flat Earth. Marie Curie, whose experiments with radioactivity led to treatment for cancer but also killed her, is only the most famous self-sacrificing scientist.

According to one American authority, with two catastrophic failures in 113 missions the space shuttle mission has a success rate of 98 per cent. Yet the risk of rocket travel cannot be eliminated. As the professor puts it: ‘You’re riding a stick of dynamite into space. We know how to do that, but sticks of dynamite can explode.’ The seven astronauts who died when Columbia exploded were aware of the risks. They considered those risks worth taking to further causes in which they believed.

Yet society seems increasingly uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty. Ours is a cautious, risk-averse, blame-and-claim culture. Never mind Marie Curie; many now consider it unacceptable to sacrifice so much as a monkey or a mouse for medical science.

In 1969 the Moon landing was celebrated as a high point of human achievement. Now the astronauts are accused of polluting or raping the Moon -or worse, faking the whole thing. In a debate on the problems of space exploration at the Royal Society in London last October, one British expert noted that, when Columbus left Portugal in search of the New World, his patrons at least knew that if he didn’t come back ‘nobody was going to sue anybody’.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared that the space programme would not falter. ‘It is all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons,’ Reagan said. ‘The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave.’ Despite these bold words, no space shuttle flew for almost three years, and newer, bigger missions stalled. After the loss of the Columbia, President George W. Bush, too, spoke about how space exploration must go on, led by ‘the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand’. It remains to be seen what those words mean in practice. Bush’s attempt to depict the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as a pioneer of space exploration does not fill some of us with confidence.

Wider reactions to the Columbia disaster illustrate a powerful mood of pessimism and anti-exploration. Long before we knew what had caused the explosion, everybody began sky-writing instant interpretations of its ‘deeper meaning’ in the space where Columbia should have been, projecting their own prejudices on to the wreckage. Among the ‘I-told-you-so’ tendency there are signs of some almost revelling in the tragedy. Soon after Columbia exploded, Canadian television was reportedly discussing whether the mission was another sign of American ‘arrogance’ and ‘overconfidence’ in the run-up to war with Iraq. One liberal British newspaper’s Washington correspondent linked the disaster to the attacks of September 11. ‘The empire is not invincible,’ he wrote. ‘America builds the tallest buildings in the world but they got knocked down. America conquers the heavens, but the spacecraft fragments into fiery shards, incinerating a crew travelling at six times the speed of sound.’

Presumably such people would be happier if Americans limited their horizons to building bungalows and flying a kite. The sustained campaign to talk down aspirations and talk up risks has affected public perceptions, encouraging many to react defensively to the loss of Columbia.

On Sunday The New York Times noted that ‘for Americans already grappling with a confluence of threatening events, the instinctive reaction was ‘What next?’‘ American television coverage of Columbia mixed up a confused cocktail of references -to September 11, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel, the Holocaust that seemed to reinforce the notion of an uncertain nation feeling itself under siege, topped off by reports of ‘toxic’ debris raining from the skies ‘like a scene from The War of the Worlds’.

As our American friends might say, let’s get real. This is about a fatal accident during a space flight. There is no need to burden the tragedy with all our petty prejudices. From what little we know, the Columbia disaster looks less like a symptom of arrogance than of a lack of ambition, of trying to run a space exploration programme on the (relatively) cheap using outdated technology.

The priority now should be to work out how best to push further and faster into space. Even some pro-exploration scientists are suggesting limits on manned space flights, claiming that the science could be done with less risk by robots. But even if there really were no scientific reason for sending people into space, it would still be important that they boldly go to, say, Mars, to revive the flagging spirit of exploration.

Our attitude to space matters most as a reflection of how we see ourselves on Earth. If that makes a positive response to Columbia important in America, it is more urgent in Britain, where we apparently don’t have enough true grit to keep a motorway free of snow. We are in danger of creating a world where, while only a few of us are in the gutter, none of us is looking at the stars.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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