Feb 3, 2003
On February 1, the space shuttle Columbia, with its crew of seven on board, disintegrated during re-entry, leaving parts strewn over several states.
It was both terribly shocking and yet a reminder of the dangers inherent in space travel as it is today.
A NASA spokesperson reported that the odds of a shuttle breaking up during re-entry are one in 350. If we look at the number of trips carried out by the space shuttles – 113 – and remember that both Challenger and Columbia ended in disaster, the odds are much worse.
If our odds for commercial air travel were this bad, few people would take a plane.
It's a tribute to the men and women who have carried out missions on the space shuttle that they did it despite the odds. One former shuttle crew member, interviewed after Columbia disintegrated, explained that for an astronaut "the fear of not getting on the next flight exceeds the fear of flying on it."
The men and women who perished in this disaster, just like the other men and women who have ridden the shuttle before them, are explorers in the best sense of the term. They were ready to rigorously train themselves, to use all their considerable expertise, to devote the central part of their lives in order to expand our knowledge of the earth, the solar system and various parts of the universe. And they did this, knowing the risks they were taking.
In so doing, they helped science push beyond the limits of what was known before about the universe.
None of this is to say that this was the only aim or even the primary aim for which the U.S. government set up NASA.
NASA was built primarily as a vehicle for extending military capabilities. The scientific discoveries and the technical know-how that have come from NASA are in fact mainly a side effect of that main purpose. And many things that NASA might have done – if its purpose had been essentially to expand what we know about the universe – were not done. Many technologies were not developed. Not because they could not have been – but because they did not contribute to the military aim of NASA, at least indirectly.
The crew died flying in a vehicle that was designed primarily to serve U.S. military needs in space, and only secondarily to serve scientific purposes. Whether or not this contributed to the tragedy we have no way of knowing. But it illustrates what was primary for NASA and what was secondary.
One of the seven astronauts on this mission was an Israeli colonel who had made a name in Israel's various wars against Arab countries. He was part of the mission that took out an Iraqi nuclear reactor before the Gulf War. In other words, one member of the crew was not included because of his scientific expertise, but as a way for the Bush administration to make a political statement. This, too, shows the way that NASA has been distorted.
U.S. capitalism, precisely because of the wealth accumulated in this country, has done some extraordinary things – but always in a distorted way, leaving much promise unfulfilled.
For the full realization of the promise in a program like NASA – stripped of its military purposes – society itself would have to be stripped of capitalism and its drive for profit anywhere and everywhere in the world. It's this system which requires an ever expanding military and submits projects like NASA to it.
Nonetheless a future society will one day pay tribute to the explorers like those who rode Columbia's last flight, just like we today pay tribute to Ferdinand Magellan, who died before his mission was completed – a mission which proved that ships could sail around the earth.