Columbia: More Questions

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Viewers watch a live broadcast of Johnson Space Center's Columbia memorial

While NASA searches definitive answers about the Columbia crash, we have two overriding questions. Why do we care so much about shuttle disasters? And what is the point of manned space exploration, anyway? Some thoughts:

Why do we care so much?

What is it about disasters in the space program that provokes such a strong response? Thousands of people die anonymous deaths every day, some after living for years in abject poverty or with devastating illnesses. There is no outcry or 24-hour news coverage for those people. Why is the death of someone who is separated from the pack, either by birth or accomplishment, so much more compelling than the death of another, more anonymous person?

There are plenty of theories: it takes us back to the dark days of the Challenger disaster; it refocuses our attention on the risks, often glossed over, of any space program; it reminds us of just how simultaneously terrifying and glorious space travel must be.

There is at least one more reason we grasp for the common experience of sadness. Tragedy, and specifically the shuttle disaster, with its epic scope and spectacular visuals, brings us together in a way very few things do these days, says Dr. Robert Butterworth, a psychologist and bereavement specialist. "There are so few places left in our society where we can agree, where we're not debating and fighting with each other," he says. This kind of universal loss transcends divisions established by politics or religion, he adds, and unites us in our grief. We've all experienced this strange comfort: the moment you hear about a disaster like this one, you know instinctively there are millions of people sharing the same emotion.

Certainly the circumstances of death help us to define our collective response. Sometimes we grieve for the dead because their deaths highlight our own shortfalls. And sometimes, as with the shuttle astronauts, we grieve because death in the pursuit of greatness hints at the infinite possibilities of life.

What is the point of manned space flights?

At the agency's founding in 1958, NASA's mission statement read: "To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe and use the environment of space for research. To explore, use, and enable the development of space for human enterprise. To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics, space, and related technologies."

In the forty years since, changes have been made to accommodate various congressional interests and a few paranoid visions of hurtling asteroids and/or vicious alien invaders. Today's NASA is charged with expanding "commercial" potential in the heavens, as well as with "protecting the Earth." Recent shuttle missions, including Columbia's, involved various research projects, including one on the effects of zero-gravity on ant colonies.

Does any of this absolutely require us to send people into space? Probably not. Nevertheless, humans will continue to fly into space, in part because our future plans for space exploration demands it. Dr. Norine Noonan, dean of the School of Math and Science at the College of Charleston, and a member of the NASA Advisory Council, a group of educators and scientists who advise the NASA administration, believes space travel will continue because it's absolutely necessary to fuel the next step in human exploration. "We want to be able to travel to other planets," she says. "That's the bottom line. Humans as a species are explorers. We always have been. And there's no way that you can gather information about the effect of the space environment on people without putting people up there."

Chuck Eastlake, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, agrees, adding that despite increased automation of in-flight procedures and even experiments, the importance of human intellect cannot be discounted. "If I were personally in charge of a mission," he says, "I would feel far more confident of success if there were a person on board to deal with contingencies."

And then there is the issue of public interest. NASA's status as an agency — in other words, its funding — is highly sensitive to the vagaries of public opinion. And public opinion tends to be higher when people are actually interested in what's happening in the space program. And putting people on space flights is a pretty good way to keep us interested.

If NASA starts running a program devoid of human drama, sending unmanned flights to gather data, the agency might find itself falling farther behind in the appropriations war. And in the crude calculus of public attention, nothing appeals like tragedy. Just hours after the Columbia was lost, President Bush announced he was increasing NASA's $15 billion annual budget by $760 million.