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Shuttle DisasterA Times Editorial

Go boldly, safely

The best way to honor the seven astronauts lost in the shuttle Columbia is to continue manned space exploration with enough funding to ensure safety.

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

The tragedy of seven lives lost in the space shuttle Columbia high above Earth could threaten our nation's resolve to continue the manned space program. Such an outcome would be a shame. While a thorough and honest investigation of what went wrong is needed, its goal should be to correct our mistakes and to move on to new accomplishments. In that way we will honor the brave astronauts who have sacrificed for a cause greater than themselves.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is creating an independent board of inquiry headed by retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who gained credibility as co-leader of a commission looking into the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. Some NASA critics are already questioning the agency's ability to conduct an effective investigation of itself, but that is unfair. So far, NASA experts have ungrudgingly provided Americans with details of the ill-fated flight.

One questionable decision has put NASA on the defensive. Last year, five members of the agency's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel were dismissed after raising questions about the safety of shuttle missions because of budgetary constraints. NASA officials say they were merely adding new experts to the panel, but it appeared the agency had something to hide. Going forward, NASA will have to avoid any action that clouds its integrity.

The early investigation of what went wrong on the Columbia leaves many unanswered questions. Indications are that damage to protective tiles on the shuttle's exterior could have led to a series of failures that doomed the craft. But NASA experts have shown wise restraint in not jumping to conclusions, waiting instead for the evidence to lead the way.

One thing is clear. Tight budgets and reorganization have unsettled the space program. NASA has seen little growth in funding over the past decade, even while there was growing competition within the agency between the space shuttle program and the International Space Station, which has suffered construction setbacks and cost overruns.

It would be destructive for politicians to play the blame game in this tragedy, however. Both parties have sought to control the space program's costs. President Clinton began shifting much of NASA's work to private contractors, and President Bush chose Sean O'Keefe as his NASA director, a nonscientist who has focused on cost cutting rather than program expansion. While such moves have deprived the program of money for possible safety improvements, no one has suggested NASA officials knowingly endangered astronauts.

Undoubtedly, critics of the space shuttle program will say attention should now shift to unmanned flights. That would be a mistake. While such craft have a role in space exploration, particularly to distant planets, it is the experiences of astronauts that capture human imagination.

Before their tragic re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, Columbia's last crew conducted scientific experiments aimed at improving medical treatment for a variety of diseases and addressing environmental change. The astronauts understood the risks they were taking, and in a joint letter, their surviving family members explained that sense of duty: "Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on."

If America is going to send its best and brightest men and women into space, it should do so without compromise for their safety. As the investigation of this tragedy goes forward and as Congress makes budgetary decisions about the space program, we cannot forget that goal.

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