If there is an official mourning ritual developing for space shuttle disasters, a central part of it appears to be renewing the debate over whether manned space flight has a future. Saturday's tragic crash of the Columbia space shuttle has already revived this issue, which was fought over heatedly after 1986's Challenger disaster and has been part of the space program ever since NASA's rocket scientists were required (to a great degree against their will) to make human space flight a priority in the 1950s.
This time, the outcome doesn't appear to be in serious doubt. Although NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has in the past expressed a healthy skepticism about costly flights of fancy like the seven-person International Space Station, he now hints at sending a shuttle up to retrieve the space station crew before June. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee, pledges to continue manned missions, and 82 percent of the American public, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken yesterday, agrees with him.
For a magazine that has supported private space exploration almost since Apollo 11 to claim the Columbia tragedy as an argument for privatization of manned space travel would be unseemly opportunism. So it's worth questioning whether manned space travel would actually increase or decrease under a private regime.
Our first clue comes in the form of the missions performed on Columbia's final voyage—a strictly scientific mission hailed as a great success for pure research. Among the major science projects handled during this flight (not counting the familiar zero-gravity tests on ants, spiders, and bees dreamed up by schoolkids in the US, China, and Australia and performed on the shuttle for public relations purposes), there appear to be few if any items of burning import. According to this poignant, lyrical story from The Washington Post, the Columbia astronauts studied the effects of zero gravity on prostate cancer cells, produced flame balls ("the weakest forms of fire ever produced"), and examined how moss responds to light and gravity.
If these experiments were conducted by, say, the Department of the Interior or a federally funded college lab—that is, if they were removed from the context of national service and heroism space travel endows—they would be scoffed at as a waste of taxpayer dollars, recited in get-a-load-of-this tones by members of congress who occasionally enjoy criticizing obscure and apparently valueless public science projects. (To anybody who accuses me of disrespecting the recently deceased, I throw the question back: Is expanding the base of knowledge about flame balls worth risking seven lives?)
To question the value of this kind of work is not to be skeptical about the future of human space travel, an inevitable and worthwhile pursuit. But it does raise the question of whether a space organization (or better, many space organizations) driven mainly by practical concerns would be in such a hurry to send people into space. As everybody understands to some degree, NASA spends more than a third of its budget on manned space travel because seeing people in space boosts the agency's reputation, and to some degree (a degree I would argue is dwindling every year) keeps the public, and the politicians who decide on NASA funding, interested. NASA's more recent PR efforts—from all-event televised greetings to granting the aging John Glenn a return visit to outer space to having Buzz Aldrin deck an overly zealous Capricorn 1 fan—have borne a disturbing resemblance to the "Deep Space Homer" episode of The Simpsons. It's probable that a private space agency, lacking a substantial PR motive, would handle in-flight science experiments, if it handled them at all, through robotics.
Rep. Boehlert acknowledged this in his comments after the crash, but fudged his response. "The counter-argument to putting people into space has been that you can get robots or machines to perform the experiments," he said. "But you can't get machines to replace the genius and judgment of a human being." That's true, except that machines were never intended to replace genius or judgment. They replace, quite efficiently, the labor and physical risk-taking that human beings are better off avoiding.
But if private space agencies would eschew manned space travel for show purposes, there is ample reason to believe that they would do a wonderful job of serving people who, for personal, commercial, scientific or any other reasons, want or need to go into space. At a host of American and international companies, at the Russian paid-travel program—in fact, everywhere except at NASA—space tourism is rapidly becoming a reality. Now that it is becoming a reality, we have to ask why it took so long. People have been going into space for more than four decades now. Forty years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, by contrast, commercial air travel was a dauntingly expensive but widespread and growing industry. While it's absurd to expect a comparable version of commercial space travel, it is fair to ask how NASA has welcomed an evolution of its responsibilities into the private sector.
Yuri Karash, a Space.com contributor with a flair for shedding light on petty spaceflight squabbles, notes that when Dennis Tito, the bazillionaire space tourism pioneer, reached the International Space Station, he received a frosty reception from the Americans on board. This is in keeping with the corporate culture at NASA, which critics have long accused of hostility toward privatization efforts. This attitude may be changing under O'Keefe, President Bush's pick as NASA administrator, who has noticeably raised the temperature for private initiatives. But the mindset that space travel can only be taken seriously under government supervision is a stubborn one. Tellingly, many of the most vocal advocates of continued NASA manned flights are the most strenuous opponents of space tourism.
It would be a shame if the Columbia disaster became another excuse to slow down efforts to transition space travel from a NASA-directed adventure to a private enterprise. In addition to the obvious benefits of competition and decentralized invention, there is a subtle emotional advantage to a non-governmental space program. If Dennis Tito had been killed on his maiden voyage, if Lance Bass were someday incinerated on re-entry, or (hopefully) if irritated cosmonauts ejected that self-satisfied old fart in the Sony commercial into deep space without a helmet, we would not feel the need to treat these events as national tragedies, but would take them in stride and move forward as quickly as possible. Ironically, NASA, with its commitment to manned space travel but its lack of enthusiasm for space travel by anybody who's not in NASA, is working against its own future.