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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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My deepest sympathy goes out to the families of the seven astronauts killed in the space shuttle Columbia on Saturday. It is terrible to lose loved ones and especially so for children.

However, the national outpouring of grief and flagellation leaves me cold. “These men are heroes.” “How could this happen?” “We as a nation have forgotten our space program and this is a clarion call.” Two days of continuous Columbia crash coverage. Probably three days by now, or maybe even more. For what?

These astronauts knew that there were dangers inherent in their occupations. If they were lulled into complacency, they need only remember the Challenger explosion in 1986 to rock them back into realty. Seven people strapped into an enormous rocket that glides in through the upper atmosphere for its landing—it’s an amazing feat of science and technology that this event has become routine enough for us to ignore—and people act like this is some miraculous happening. Any number of things can go wrong and the astronauts in the orbiter aren’t coming back to their families. It’s a dangerous endeavor and requires a lot of courage to undertake, but no more than millions of people in dangerous occupations possess. Firemen, police officers, and postmen all are more likely to die on the job than astronauts—postmen mainly because of miles driven, not deranged co-workers. Theirs is a noble profession, but there are few professions distinguished in their lack of nobility, properly viewed.

There are enormous risks in everyday life. I wonder how many “noble heroes” died in car crashes that same day. Or the innocent victims of countless crimes. The destruction of the World Trade Center is significant because those were victims of international aggression; the astronauts were, in all likelihood, the victims of minor problems compounded. Grief for them is understandle since death is the worst scenario for a human life. The astronauts were lucky in that they died while fulfilling their dreams: they had just had a successful mission that they had rigorously trained for for many years. I only wish that I die doing what I love.

One theme I heard repeatedly is that we has a nation grown apathetic towards the space program, “This landing of Columbia, like many before it, was only dimly received.” This should surprise no one since the space program serves nary a useful purpose. Satellite payloads can be delivered far more economically, efficiently, and, for the military, secretly than sending a team of astronauts into low orbit to release. Experiments performed on the shuttle are usually trivial sops for political motivations. Repair work performed on the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope (don’t get me started on the former) could be done using manned rockets rather than billion-dollar space planes. I challenege anyone to find an experiment performed on the space shuttle that had redeeming qualities worth the expenditure. The program fosters apathy since few can even understand its purpose, apart from makework for former fighter pilots and scientists. I say this as someone who was deeply engrossed in manned spaceflight as a youth, going so far as to actually attend SpaceCamp.

What’s the answer? Build a new space shuttle, of course, to replace the one lost and do it in West Virginia. Oh wait, I guess I was channelling Robert Byrd for a moment (except he’s not dead). In reality, the space program needs to be evaluated and potentially scrapped entirely. If there are viable portions, they need to be sold off to private enterprise. The rest should be terminated. If that means that we have no men doing space walks or futzing around on the ISS, so be it. It’s time to end the astronautical Amtrak.