All of America shares a collective sense of sorrow for the seven astronauts who died in the space shuttle disaster on Saturday. Recognizing their tremendous talents and abilities, we mourn their absence from a world that truly had need for them and for their spirit of adventure. Lost is the opportunity to rejoice for the possibility of international cooperation, as represented by the presence of an Israeli pilot and a native of India. But while shocked Americans watched the constant replay of this tragic event, we also grieved for the loss of a symbol of American ingenuity.
Since the first manned launch in 1961, the United States has adopted the space program as a key component of its national pride and sense of identity. For more than a generation, NASA has confirmed our belief that we are a “can do” people, capable of fulfilling the most noble of goals and objectives. Domestic unrest and foreign policy debacles might shake our confidence, but the space program was constantly present to confirm America’s destiny. Even when divided over issues of war, Americans sat together to watch the first moon landing. For many, detente first occurred when American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts first opened a hatch that separated their respective spacecrafts. Throughout this era, the space program enjoyed a natural symbolism, as it invited the world to reach for the moon, for the stars, and beyond.
While agonizing over the space shuttle disaster, we will hear many appropriate but predictable reflections: that the astronauts did not die in vain, that their lives serve as a model for world citizens, and that the United States can best pay tribute by continuing their work of adventure. In our consideration of these truisms, the great temptation will be to presume that an expansion of the NASA agenda can best serve the spirit of the Columbia astronauts.
America’s national interests compel an investment in science and technology. Unquestionably, the space program proves the benefits of such commitment. Without NASA’s support for computer development, I might well be composing this article with pen and paper rather than on a keyboard. Since its departure from practices of alchemy and sorcery, science has required its adherents constantly to look anew at the world from a logical perspective.
In considering a response to the Columbia tragedy, perhaps the United States should apply a similar approach to its allocation of scarce resources among the plethora of worthy scientific venues. Aeronautics is not just a science, but an industry. As such, it represents an important investment of both human and monetary capital. It has also created its own bureaucratic infrastructure. Because it exists, NASA supports its own perpetuation. Its administrators visit the halls of Congress not for the purpose of open-minded deliberation, but to raise money for a particular research agenda. By recognizing their personal incentive, the American people will be better poised to consider the future direction of science in the aftermath of Columbia.
The scientific method is an orderly process that includes identifying a problem, collecting all pertinent data, formulating a hypothesis, performing experiments, interpreting results, and reaching a conclusion. For America, the problem is how best to advance the welfare of our citizens through research on a budget. Over time, this nation has had to make difficult investment choices in areas such as social welfare, military spending, and scientific study. For almost half a century, the United States has financed the noble experiment of space research, even though the funding devoted to the space program has decreased significantly in recent years. Today, we are reminded of its enormous costs, not just monetarily. Having tested the hypothesis of space research, we must not presume a conclusion of its lasting efficacy. Rather, now is an ideal time to evaluate the costs, and to consider the alternatives. Perhaps a rational conclusion will cause us to continue the NASA experiment. But let us not presume that it might not lead us to select a different set of research priorities.
Craig Bucki is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.