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Rethinking our Space Priorities - A Commentary

By Stephen Whitley, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – In January 1986, as I was returning to university from visiting some friends, I heard the first news of the Challenger tragedy. Classes that day were cancelled and my dorm mates and I sat around the television all day watching the horrible footage over and over again. I remember sharing a feeling of sadness and shock as vividly as I recall President Reagan's speech that evening. His eloquence assured us that even in the tragedy, we could take solace in the fact that those who died were noble and had been in search of a great cause. Just as my mother remembers where she was when she heard the news of Kennedy's assassination, and as my 20-year-old nephew's well-remembered tragedy will most likely be 9/11; for me, the defining tragedy of my youth was the Challenger explosion. After the Challenger exploded, I firmly believed we should return to space as quickly as possible. After the Columbia disaster, I'm not so sure.

Proponents of the space program remind us that Americans are "explorers" and that it is in our nature to quest for knowledge and new areas to discover. John Logsdon, a scholar who studies the space program, told CBS news, "Americans need symbols. We want role models." I agree that we need symbols, but at what human and financial cost? What type of symbol does our society need? Most definitely the Columbia seven and other astronauts who have been involved in the space program are people worthy of our respect and admiration. But I don't believe the government should be in the business of creating symbols.

The shuttle missions have conducted experiments in space that have contributed greatly to science, but how much of the shuttle program is about scientific experiment and how much is it about large industrial companies making money? If the shuttle missions are about cutting-edge science, why is it that until just recently the flight deck used pre-Pentium 8086 chips from the early 1980's on its flight deck? The main engines of the 1970's designed shuttle use hundreds more moving parts than modern rocket designs. Corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell make billions of dollars from the space program. Each shuttle launch costs $500 million. The International Space station was slated to cost $14 billion but the actual costs now are about $35 billion and counting. The bottled water alone on the space station costs half a million dollars per day. My question is, aren't there more pressing problems on Earth that could be addressed with this money? Poverty, homelessness, AIDS, and cancer are just a few of the issues people on earth face. Isn't our tax money better spent elsewhere?

In the next few months, Americans will engage in the type of national debate that makes our country so unique. In the end, however, I feel certain the space program will continue. There are too many large corporations and too much glamour associated with space travel to scrap the whole enterprise, and the Bush administration's preoccupation with Star Wars will most likely assure the continuation of shuttle launches.

President Kennedy, in the 1961 speech where he promised to send a man to the moon, ended with these words, "Space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there." We have climbed there, but 42 years later, it is time to re-evaluate our space program and focus on problems here on Earth.

Stephen Whitley is a writer from Dallas.