Rockets and Buck
Rogers: Odd combo?
As astronauts rode bucking space capsules on increasingly ambitious missions, science started as a hitchhiker. By the first moon landings, in 1969, however, space science had come into its own: Moon rocks carried priceless information about the origin of the solar system, and robot spacecraft were reaching deeper into the solar system.
But the astronauts paid a heavy price. In 1967, three died on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. In 1987, seven died in Challenger. This year, seven more died on Columbia.
Behind the headlines about manned triumphs and disasters, however, commercial, military and scientific space programs were flourishing with a lot of help from radios, computers and robots:
In 2001, NASA, lead for the first time by a bean-counter (Sean O'Keefe, who had criticized the agency while at the Office of Management and Budget), confronted the growing tide of red ink by cutting station plans back to a minimum, called "core complete."
We'll see details later, but the cutbacks were a problem. Herman Cummins, a professor of physics at the City College of New York, served on a National Research Council committee evaluating science on the station. The group, he says, "concluded that current budget considerations that are driving ISS finances make it the equivalent to building a $100 million mansion, but not having enough money to run electric wiring or plumbing."
Park, a noted debunker of what he considers pseudo-science (see "Voodoo Science" in the bibliography), added that space-station studies of the effect of microgravity, "Come at a very steep price, it is more hype than substance, and the scientific community regards the ISS with something akin to contempt."
Post-tragedy, even the acid-tongued Park was more circumspect, telling us, "I've been getting a certain amount of hate mail." But he argued that the human vs. robot the issue would not fade away. The doomed Columbia mission "was the last scheduled science mission for a shuttle," he observes. "From here on they were supposed to do that [science] on the ISS, to make it look good."
Although the Columbia crash was costly in human terms, Park says it may further the debate over how to explore space. "This whole thing is going to open a discussion of whether we should continue with the shuttle program at all," says Park. "The argument I have been making is that you certainly can't justify the shuttle and space station on the basis of science."
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.