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Examining the Columbia Disaster part 2 - 2003-02-04

MR. MORALES: As the nation mourns and the investigation into the Columbia disaster continues, Americans are beginning to ask: What will become of the U.S. space program?

Joining me to assess the future of American manned space flight are: James Oberg -- a former space shuttle engineer for NASA and a leading expert on space disasters. He joins us from Houston, Texas. And John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University here in the nation's capitol.

John Logsdon, let me begin with you. The shuttle was conceived and developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite two major upgrades, has the fleet become obsolete?

MR. LOGSDON: No, I don't think so. I mean, obsolete is the strong word. The fleet has become dated, because you're still using the basic design of the early 1970's. The electronics and other elements inside the Shuttle have been upgraded, as you say. But compare it to the B-52s that we were using for bombing missions in Afghanistan -- those planes were built in the fifties. So, with proper maintenance and upgrade along the way, this kind of equipment can operate a long time.

MR. MORALES: James Oberg, they're talking of extending the Shuttle fleet, using it into the year 2020. Is that realistic?

MR. OBERG: I think it is realistic. Because if you look at the needs for vehicles of this power, of this base load and base size, there would be needs, but perhaps not as many flights per year as we are doing during the construction of the International Space Station. And the shuttle is being upgraded. In many ways, in key systems, it's new and much safer than in the past. It's hard to say that, looking at the loss of Columbia, but it's arguably safer.

And another thing about the shuttle is that, as the years go by, a lot of the cynics who thought that they knew better and smarter ways to design shuttles and have tried, in other countries, in Russia, France and elsewhere, in Japan, even in Britain, have struck out. Their plans were just on paper and nothing was able to perform as well, even on paper, as that old rugged, reliable shuttle design seems to be still able to do.

MR. MORALES: Jim, is there a follow-on manned system on the drawing board somewhere?

MR. OBERG: There are a number of systems, some for a small crew size, just a crew taxi back and forth to space, as well as the so-called single-stage-to-orbit design that were perhaps overambitious. They were attempted in some test plans and test programs that were cancelled in recent years. As technology improves in propulsion and in power and in metallurgy, the time may come when more efficient systems with the shuttle's capabilities can be built. We still don't see how to do that. We're still using the shuttle because it remains the best engineering answer to the kinds of tasks it has been assigned to do.

MR. MORALES: John Logsdon, in order to get a follow-on system to the shuttle off the ground, that's going to take a major commitment from the political leaders here in this country.

MR. OBERG: It will take first the development of the technology to make it plausible that we can build a system to replace the shuttle that's enough better than the shuttle to justify the investment, and then the commitment is for the United States to be serious about space as part of its future and humans in space as a key element to that. If we make that commitment, this country has the resources to put into the program. So, it's really the political commitment that space is an important part of the future.

MR. MORALES: Let me ask each of you, staying with John Logsdon for just a moment, how will the Columbia disaster affect U.S. manned spaced flight? Can we expect more unmanned missions, for example?

MR. LOGSDON: There are a lot of very high-quality robotic missions on the drawing boards anyway. I don't think that the balance will shift towards them. What will happen, I think, in the weeks to come is some form of national debate -- it may not be very coherent -- about the benefits of human space flight compared to the cost and the risk and, in my view, a revalidation that this is worth doing and we've got to fix the shuttle, move forward with the program, invest in future technologies, and take a long-term, take a 20 or 25-year view of what we're up to.

MR. OBERG: The unmanned systems can't always replace the services. Although new unmanned systems are being built to supply the space station, to add more rooms to it, there will still be a mix of human and automated probes. This shock is going to make people rethink their ideas, rethink their strategies. Perhaps they will just return to their previous ideas out of habit. Perhaps it will change some minds. I just hope that John and I and forums like this can help contribute to people getting smarter about this very controversial and very dangerous field of human endeavor.

MR. MORALES: That brings me to my final question. I would like to ask each of you, beginning with James Oberg -- most of our listeners here on the Voice of America live in countries where there are no space programs. Can we explain to them why the United States and countries like the U.S. should send men and women into space?

MR. OBERG: Bluntly, in some cases, it's a matter of demonstrating one's own technical capabilities, either for commercial/trade reasons, or sometimes diplomatic pressure or otherwise. It's for inspiring its own people and the world with the possibilities of exploration. Because that sort of inspiration is what we call a non-zero-sum game. That means that everyone can gain from exploration and new technologies. It also has been changing our entire world culture view of our planet and humanity's role in that planet. And that is an issue that affects everybody who breaths this air and walks on the planet.

MR. MORALES: And the last word to you, John Logsdon.

MR. LOGSDON: First of all, for the poorer countries of the world, there are lots of benefits achieved out of space programs -- communications, tele-education, telemedicine, earth observation to manage their territory's scarce resources and help identify the foundations for their development. Humans are a bit of a discretionary expenditure that the richer and the leading societies can afford at this point in their development. I think it is something that has become part of what a leading nation in the 21st century does, particularly the United States with its spirit of exploration, a spirit of pushing frontiers. I think it is committed to having humans in space and that this accident is not going to end that commitment.

MR MORALES: We'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: space engineer James Oberg and John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.