|As Tom Wolfe explored in his novel "The
Right Stuff", the potentially lethal dangers of manned spaceflight
have always attracted those men and women willing to risk their
lives for the thrill of exploration.
since the optimistic days of sending the first American into space,
there have been three fatal accidents that have put the public's
appetite for the risk to the test -- the 1967 launch pad fire in
the Apollo 1 command module, which killed three astronauts; the
1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger during lift-off in which
seven astronauts perished; and the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle
Columbia and the death of its seven crew members.
The question that has evolved along with the space program itself
is whether the scientific achievements are worth the risk of sending
humans into space.
According to Marcia Smith of the resources, science and industry
division of the Congressional Research Service in April 2003 testimony
following the Columbia accident, even in the beginning of NASA's
manned space program, when launch-related technology was still
new, the public has endorsed sending humans into space.
"The risks were high in those early flights. We had little
experience with launching rockets into space, and with the spacecraft
that protected the astronauts," she told Congress. "Yet
the nation was willing to accept those risks, and pay the cost,
to ensure American preeminence. Indeed, only three weeks after
Alan Shepard's flight, President Kennedy called on the nation
to commit to the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end
of the decade, and the nation said yes."
Since the first space shuttle launch in spring of 1981, more
than 100 successful shuttle missions have followed, but two fatal
accidents involving 14 shuttle crew members grounded the fleet
for two years each time to correct the potentially fatal structural
After each accident -- and after the United States won the "moon
race" with Russia -- Congress and NASA had to weigh the costs
and benefits of continuing to human spaceflight, Smith said.
considered the pros of ending the program, including saving $4
billion -- the annual operating budget of the shuttle program,
and $2 billion -- the cost of the International Space Station,
and the cons, such as losing the national prestige connected to
the program and the $30 billion the United States already invested
in the space station, she testified.
Each time, Congress has decided to continue to support manned
missions, she said.
Nonetheless, whenever the space program experiences a loss of
life, the debate rekindles over whether robots should perform
most of the missions designed to advance people's knowledge of
"Robotic missions can only do things," former astronaut
Mae Jemison said on ABC's Nightline on Feb. 3, 2003, two days
after the Columbia accident. "They can only do things that
you've already thought of, in terms of possibilities. Humans have
the ability to be much more flexible, where you can change the
possible experiments that are done. We see with a different eye."
Duke University professor and former NASA historian Alex Roland,
however, said during the same program that although NASA has always
believed that manned spaceflight is essential to any successful
space program and that the American public and Congress wouldn't
support a program without it, the space agency should consider
sending more robots into space.
"I'm not saying we should get rid of all manned space flight,
but I think the public would be tolerant of a lot more good space
science and a lot less of astronauts floating around, tending
experiments that don't amount to much," he said.
In her congressional testimony, Smith laid out the differences
of opinion on the value of human spaceflight.
"Critics of human space flight believe that robotic probes
can gather the needed scientific data at much less cost, and that
humans contribute little to space-based scientific research. They
point out that no ground-breaking scientific discoveries have
emerged from 42 years of human space flight that can be uniquely
attributed to the presence of humans in space," she said.
"Proponents insist that human ingenuity and adaptability
are essential for some types of basic research in space, and can
rescue an otherwise doomed mission by recognizing and correcting
problems before they lead to failures."
debate bubbled up again when NASA was considering whether to fix
the Hubble Space Telescope. Driven by public pressure, NASA agreed
in August 2004 to send a robotic mission to service the telescope
before its expected failure in 2007. The space agency deemed sending
astronauts, which had been done in the past, as too risky in light
of the Columbia disaster.
But the National Academy of Sciences in a December 2004 report
backed the tried-and-true method of sending humans to repair the
Hubble, rather than the untested use of robots, even in light
of the Columbia disaster.
"A robotic mission is seen as just too risky given the state
of technology and the time available to design, build and test
the robotic craft," the report said.
James Van Allen, professor at the University of Iowa, expressed
the misgivings people often feel over the issue. He wrote in Issues
in Science and Technology that "the only surviving motivation
for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure."
But he cautioned, "I ask myself whether the huge national
commitment of technological talent to human spaceflight and the
ever-present potential loss of precious human life are really
Despite these misgivings, the public has remained steadfast in
its support of the space program, despite the fatalities. According
to an Aug. 18, 2003 USA Today report, "Since the Columbia
disaster, Americans have rallied behind the space program. A USA
Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows support for increasing NASA funding
to levels not seen since the 1980s."
Bolstered by this public support, politicians have also continued
their backing of the shuttle and other programs.
"Support for a manned space program has always been strong,
and no president has been willing to cancel it," Roger Launius,
a historian with the National Air and Space Museum and former
senior NASA historian, told the Houston Chronicle.
in the end it is the astronauts who must make the fateful decision
whether to hurtle themselves into space. Former astronaut Rick
Hauck, who spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars, said 18 of the 430 humans who have flown in space have
died -- 14 on two shuttle missions and four on two Soyuz flights
-- which equals a fatality rate of 4 percent.
"Would I have flown if I had known there was a four percent
chance of death? No, I don't think I would have flown.,"
But ultimately, he continued, it should be up to the astronauts
to decide if the risks are worth it. "The crew will have
to be convinced that all reasonable measures have been taken to
-- By Chris Han, Online NewsHour