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The dream that sinks

When the shock of the disaster of the "Columbia" shuttle crash begins to give way to a sharp investigation and harsh criticism, it becomes clear that the conquest of space is no longer the dream that united the American nation three decades ago

By: Natan Gutman, Haaretz courtesy of Walla!

The ferry crash. The most sophisticated machine cannot be more successful than the person who designs, maintains and operates it
The ferry crash. The most sophisticated machine cannot be more successful than the person who designs, maintains and operates it

"America will continue its journey into space", swore President George Bush immediately after learning of the "Columbia" disaster last Saturday, expressing the ambition of many in the American public - not to give up, not to give in to difficulties, not to abandon the dream. However, a week later, when the shock of the national and personal disaster begins to give way to the piercing investigation and the difficult questions, it becomes clear that the conquest of space is no longer the dream that united the American nation three decades ago. The dangers, the money and the loss of interest cast a shadow over the president's statement. America's journey into space will indeed continue, but it will probably be a journey full of difficulties and criticism.

Since the peak moment of NASA and the American space project, during the landing on the moon in June 1969, there has been a decline in interest and excitement about the dream of space. The space program was unable to repeat the feat and ride the waves of human ambition to conquer outer space. The historians of space travel, who enjoyed a surge of interest in their research last week, claim that it is a combination of factors that turned space from a subject that ignited the imagination into just another industry, but the most important of them is the loss of excitement.

The big boom was in the 60s and 70s, before and after the trip to the moon. The concept of the "Space Age" took its place in the American vision, and the entire nation felt a partner in breaking the boundaries. The human imagination, the researchers explain, took off with every space mission that was launched. What didn't they think about in those days - vacations with the children on distant stars, colonies on the moon, and of course meetings with those imaginary creatures that live in space - the aliens. Science fiction flourished with scientific progress and with the conquest of space, until many seemed to be intertwined in the belief that soon and here we will be able to reach Mars, meet its mysterious inhabitants and address them with a message of peace.

But the technology did not live up to the science fiction predictions. After the symbolic achievement of the moon landing, the disconnect between the nation and its space scientists began. While the former expect NASA to continue to fulfill what they read in books and saw in movies, the latter focused on the goal they aimed for from the beginning - the advancement of science. In the 80s it was already clear to the American public that the space program deals with physics, astronomy and geology and not with aliens and colonies on the moon. The astronauts were indeed heroes, but heroes of science and technology, not Mr. Spock from "Star Trek". The space project was pushed to a corner. The launches and landings, especially when the airplane-like shuttles replaced the spaceships, became a matter of routine, another pretty photo in the newspaper or on the evening TV show, nothing more.

NASA, many argued last week, had a significant part in the American public's loss of interest in space. The American space agency has not initiated, since the landing on the moon, any project that would excite the public. From a scientific point of view it has indeed progressed according to expectations, but only a few of the American taxpayers understood or appreciated this progress. There is evidence that the public was ready to engage again in the matter of space. In 1997, when an unmanned space vehicle was sent to bring images from Mars, there was a steep increase in public interest in the space program. The complicated "spacewalk" operation to repair the "Hubble" telescope also managed to arouse quite a bit of excitement in the US and received extensive coverage in the media, as did the second launch into space of veteran astronaut John Glenn.

But NASA did not understand the need to reconnect with the people. It did not try to land on the moon again, it did not launch manned missions to Mars, and in fact since Apollo 17 the only missions that humans have been launched on have been space missions orbiting the Earth.

The space shuttle project was perhaps the main sign of the adoption of the purposeful approach in the US space agency. The idea was to replace the disposable and expensive spaceships with a multipurpose space vehicle, which would take off into space at least once a week, with each launch costing just over ten million dollars. The astronauts, the heroes of the American "Space Age", were transformed in the shuttles into just pilots with a helmet, and the space vehicle was a large plane landing on the runway. But the ferries also failed to meet the practical expectations placed on them. They were not a "cheap and available space vehicle", as conceived by the heads of the space program in the 70s, but cumbersome tools that require months of preparation before each launch, costing the American treasury no less than 250 million dollars per space mission.

Other experts see other reasons why Americans are no longer enthusiastic about the space program, including disappointment with the program's many failures, the collapse of the Internet industry, and the September 11 terrorist attacks. All of these combined into a kind of feeling of disappointment with the age of technology and the desire to return to the roots, to the simple life. If once observing a successful launch of a space vehicle into the sky was enough to fill the heart of the American with pride and confidence in the strength of his country, now a handful of hijackers came with small cutting knives and proved its weakness. Something about the technological promise did not materialize.

The first to diagnose the decline of the American public's interest in the space programs were the public's representatives to Congress and the administration, and the way for elected officials to express their lack of interest in any idea is through their pockets. NASA's budget today - just over 15 billion dollars - is, in real terms, less than half of what it was 35 years ago. Year after year, lawmakers have chipped away at agency budgets, and the administration has done little to fight back on Capitol Hill. The more the fact that the American space program is nothing more than a very sophisticated scientific experiment that concerns a limited community of science experts was established, the more its position in the American economic priorities deteriorated.

This week, after the "Columbia" crash, both President Bush and the heads of the congressional committees that budget NASA rushed to announce that they would do everything to bring about an increase in the agency's budget and that the policy of cuts, which caused considerable difficulties for the agency in the last decade, was wrong. No one today wants to take responsibility for a cut that may have caused negligence that cost human lives, and no one wants to be seen as an opponent of the space agency on its day of mourning. This was also the case in 1986 after the "Challenger" crash and the loss of seven crew members. The result will, most likely, be an increase in the NASA budget by a certain amount, as part of the additional budget law that will be submitted to Congress in the coming months. But economists have already warned that the budget is in a radical deficit even before this addition and even before the tens of billions that will go to the war in Iraq, so it is difficult to see a real turnaround in the space agency's budgeting policy.

NASA was established in 1958 when America entered the space race. The shock of the launch of the Russian "Sputnik" led America to establish an agency with one goal - to win the race against the Soviets on the new front. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy called on NASA to realize the vision of placing an American on the lunar soil before the end of the decade. The space agency was able to do this and position itself as the cutting edge of innovative technology and as a symbol of the scientific superiority of the United States over the enemy beyond the Iron Curtain.

Since then, NASA has known many more successes, but also quite a few failures - from "Apollo" 1 to "Challenger". For many, the "Challenger" crash was the breaking point. The shock of the disaster that occurred live, in front of the eyes of millions of schoolchildren watching the first teacher launched into space, was also joined by the difficult information that emerged in the investigation of the disaster. In the two and a half years in which the American space program was shut down due to the crash of the "Challenger", the public was exposed to the sad information about the behind the scenes of the American space agency - the deficiencies in the design of the space shuttle, the lack of strictness in the execution and procedures, the huge budget deviations, and even quite a few frauds . NASA was no longer just the shining facade of astronauts in spacesuits, but also a large, cumbersome and creaking mechanism.

In 2001, the number of launches into space for both manned missions and unmanned spacecraft and rockets dropped to a low. There were only 56 launches this year, compared to 85 the previous year. In 2002, the number rose slightly, to 65, and this year will probably be a new low due to the freezing of all space programs until the circumstances of the "Columbia" crash are clarified.

President George Bush is not seen as the man who will save the US space agency. The US media accused him this week of never showing any interest in the American space program. The "New York Times" claimed that even when Bush was governor of the state of Texas, he never visited the large space base located in his state. The White House hastened to deny and claimed that Bush did visit the facility in Houston, although Bush's spokesmen could not remember whether it was in 1985 or 1986. Bush never gave a speech on space matters and did not present an American vision on this subject. Commentators say that his lack of activity in the matter of space is due to the fact that he is really not interested in the subject, and beyond that due to his fear of budgetary adventures. Bush remembers very well the fate of his father, who was thrown out of power because he failed in the economic field, and he does everything to not repeat this mistake.

George Bush Sr. was the last American president to present a vision for the conquest of space. In a speech at the Air and Space Museum in Washington in 1989, Bush Sr. called for initiating space missions to Mars as well as returning and flying a man to the moon. Congress did not approve these initiatives because of their high cost.

But even those who are not interested in space understand that the American space program cannot be shelved today. It is not only about the neglect of the scientific arena and the abandonment of the International Space Station project, but also about the collapse of the entire space industry and the dismissal of tens of thousands of workers. When the space program was frozen after the "Challenger" disaster, thousands of workers at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Houston in Texas found themselves out of work. The American space industry generates about 40 billion dollars a year - 15 billion from NASA's budget (most of which goes to external contractors who perform work for the agency), and the rest from communication companies and satellite businesses. The collapse of NASA will collapse a large part of this industry.

In recent years, NASA has tried to deal with the cuts by privatizing and selling services. NASA receives money from satellite companies for launches and repairs in space and also sells test areas on the space shuttle. Many of the experiments performed by the seven astronauts who perished aboard the "Columbia" were private experiments, funded by pharmaceutical, chemical, and similar companies.

About a year ago, a body of external consultants recommended that NASA enter the space tourism industry in order to increase its revenues. Like the Russians, NASA can sell places on the shuttle to "space tourists" for 5 million dollars per seat, and thus reach 300 million dollars a year. Yesterday, the Russians announced that they are freezing the space tourist program following the "Columbia" disaster, and it is doubtful that anyone at NASA today takes this idea seriously.

Economic commentators estimate that NASA will not collapse financially. Congress will be forced to increase its budget, if only to upgrade the safety systems on the three remaining ferries, so it is doubtful whether the latest crisis will lead to layoffs. Nor will it shut down its space programs. The need to maintain the International Space Station and the desire to see America continue to lead in the field of space, especially in view of the advanced space programs of China and Japan, dictate the continued support of the American government in the space project. But in order to return to the hearts of the American public, the agency now needs to complete two tasks - the first is to convince the public that the program is indeed safe, despite the disasters. And the second is to find a new thrill that will unite the people behind Houston. The idea of ​​sending a manned spacecraft to Mars, which NASA toyed with before the Columbia disaster landed on it, could be just the thrill the program needs now.


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