Spirits in the Sky

Not sure whether the space-shuttle disaster will quite make it into the pantheon of “where were you when…” moments. But for the record, I was wheezing my lungs out on the treadmill when Chris told me to turn on the news (hey, going outside and doing strenuous exercise here is asking for trouble – it hit 30C on Friday, and that was still January…).

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it was something of a shock, though my first thought, knowing the first Israeli astronaut was on board, was not of mechanical failure. I would just like to claim copyright on the idea of it really being a terrorist attack, which gets hushed up so that someone like Steven Seagal can hunt down those responsible.

It may seem cruel to say this, but it probably does good every now and then to remind people of what a dangerous thing space travel actually is. The shuttle was travelling at over Mach 18, 200,000 feet up – about twenty times faster and five times higher than a commercial airliner – yet if it had landed safely, would doubtless have been relegated to 30 seconds at the end of the evening news.

There is nothing new or exciting about the shuttle or its missions – the International Space Station is nice, but to the average member of the public, it’s indistinguishable from the Skylab of the 1970’s, so is hardly anything to get worked up about. Or, indeed, open the wallets for, and as a result, NASA’s budget has been static or cut in recent years. 2002 saw it at $14.5 billion, which sounds like a lot until you realise it’s less than one-twentieth of what was spent on defence by America the same year.

This is why NASA is still using the shuttle – a vehicle which made its inaugural flight in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency – and why no replacement is even off the drawing board, leaving the shuttle with another twenty years in service. By the end of that, it’ll be 40 years old; can you imagine how loud the military would be screaming if their chief aircraft were built in the 1960’s? And the likely long interruption to shuttle flights (2 1/2 years after the Challenger disaster) will only make things worse.

What is needed is some project that will capture the hearts and minds of people – not just in America, but around the world, and once again make spaceflight a non-trivial event. Something which can combine technology and resources from many countries, and unite people, so that they can look up at the sky with hope rather than in fear. I can think of no more fitting memorial for the seven lost astronauts than that.