The demise of the space shuttle Columbia has touched off renewed debate about the future of the U.S. space program. Space officials and politicians are promising that the program will rebound.
In the short term, the focus will be on finding out what happened to Columbia, and fixing the problem. Space agency administrator Sean O'Keefe made this pledge on CBS television. He said, "We are going to find out what happened here. We owe that to the families of the crew, to be sure that we have run this to ground, that we cover every single issue, and come up with a determination of what caused this tragedy. Once we find it out, we are going to correct it and get back to flight."
Members of Congress are also promising that the space program will recover. Senator Bill Nelson is a Florida Democrat, who flew on the space shuttle Columbia as a Congressman in 1986. He was interviewed on NBC television where he said, "I believe that the will of the American people is that we explore space. I hope that that can be translated into a vigorous program that will take us beyond the space station, that will take us to Mars, or back to the Moon. The nation needs a vision. The space program is how we can fulfill that vision," he said.
Another shuttle veteran is former U.S. Senator John Glenn. Although best known as the first American to orbit the earth in his Mercury capsule back in 1962, John Glenn also joined the crew of the space shuttle Discovery for a mission in 1998, at the age of 77.
He told NBC television that the American public needs to be reminded of the benefits of the U.S. space program. "To remember that we are not up there in space just to joyride around. We are up there to do things that are of value to everybody right here on earth," he said.
Saturday's disintegration of the shuttle Columbia and the loss of its seven crew members marks the third time in the history of the U.S. space program that lives have been lost in the pursuit of space exploration.
Three Apollo astronauts died in a fire at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1967. All seven crew members aboard the space shuttle Challenger died when it exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986.
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon in 1969. He told NBC television that the space pioneers of today owe it to those who have gone before to continue to explore the heavens.
"I think that we owe it to the people who lost their lives in the Apollo (I) fire (1967), the Challenger (disaster in 1986) and Columbia, and all the other contributing losses that have gone in sacrifice for the future of our space program," Mr. Aldrin said.
America's experience in space has always held the promise of great success and great risk. It was President John Kennedy who set the course in the early 1960's.
"To achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth," President Kennedy said.
That goal was realized in July of 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong walked out of his Apollo spacecraft on the moon and into history.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Mr. Armstrong said when he walked on the moon.
In the wake of the Columbia disaster, it has fallen to another U.S. president, George W. Bush, to assure Americans that space exploration will continue. "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on," Mr. Bush said.