Jeremiad: No More Cheap Thrills

Originally appeared in NEWSDAY © 2003

 

In Grateful Memory of the Columbia Crew -- They Lived Our Dreams
The Columbia Crew
- - David Brown - Laurel Clark - Kalpana Chawla - Michael Anderson - Ilan Ramon - -

- - Rick Husband - - William McCool - -



Let's take a look at the Columbia disaster from a hundred years and a hundred million miles away.

Let's stand on Mars next to the kilometer-high Tribute Wall. Carved with lasers on this huge reddish-black slab of ancient volcanic glass are the names and portraits of the ten thousand dreamers and pioneers who died in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Many died entering space, some going home or attempting to land on new homes. Some of their graves lie between the worlds, drifting in endless dark, the noblest graves of all, Martians say.

Looking back on Earth at the cusp of the twenty-first century, from this high perspective, we see a planet caught between dreams and greed, old hatreds and new hopes. We remember the era when Mars seemed as far away as the distant stars.

It would be thirty years before politicians arose whom we feel are fit to record in our Martian history books.

In the 1970s, amazingly, Americans grew tired of landing on the moon. In the eighties, as shuttle missions became routine, they again lost interest. Engineers and scientists and space commentators inside and outside of NASA warned of disasters to come. The American people did not listen. They squeezed funding more, forced more retirements and reduced more staff.

The leaders in Washington, listening to blind and cranky voters, refused to fund the fledgling space effort sufficiently to keep those early shuttle astronauts safe.

Martians do not remember any of them fondly.

Down there on that old Earth our ancestors were strangling the dreamers, slowly and painfully. Some days, they strangled batches of them all at once--seven over the Atlantic, seven more over Texas.

Those were bad days indeed.

The names of the Challenger and Columbia crews come early on the Tribute Wall. They form two small but obvious Pleiades of names and faces cut into the stone.

Even after these sacrifices, managers and politicians continued pushing aging shuttles to do what many engineers warned they should not be called upon to do. Some tried to build single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicles to replace the shuttles. They failed and were abandoned. Today, we know that SSTOs were the right way, simpler and safer, easier to maintain and turn around for the next mission, but they were expensive. Building them took vision and perseverance and focus. It took a community willingness to band together and plan cathedrals in the sky for the glory of all, not indulge in naked greed and dismantle government for the benefit of a few.

Through devotion and resourcefulness and lifelong dedication, those early engineers and administrators worked day and night with their old and dated machines, in perpetual fear of what could happen if even something tiny went wrong.

The astronauts understood.

They knew their lives were on the line, but still, they went into space. They could feel the pressure of descendant Martians waiting to be born and to explore and live on high.

They flew dreaming of us.

We know now how many would die; what makes Martians cringe to this day is the waste. In those decades, Americans sacrificed some of their best and brightest children because they did not care enough to build new, safer spacecraft.

What would Martians say, if we could reach back to those days and teach? We would say: Look to the planets and the stars, where your children will live and grow.
Accept the inevitability.

But we might also urge discretion. No half measures. Send forth your dreams and dreamers with generosity and direction, or not at all. Until Americans have searched their community soul, there should be no more flinging of heroes into the skies to dream and work and feel exaltation, and then to fall to Earth and burn.

Pause to reflect.

Human space travel is dangerous. Anything daring and wonderful is risky.

But in the early twenty-first century, in a time of blindness and fear and greed, human space travel on the cheap became obscene.

Greg Bear has served on numerous occasions as an advisor to the government on scientific matters, including working on the Citizens' Advisory Committee on National Space Policy. He is the author of the forthcoming DARWIN'S CHILDREN and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF GREG BEAR.