The space shuttle, Columbia, was carrying in it seven extraordinary men and women. The loss of their lives in such a horrific accident is, indeed, a tragedy “of epic proportions”, in the words of the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Columbia crew was remarkably international. Ilan Ramon, an air force colonel from Israel and the country’s first astronaut, was in the shuttle, carrying into outer space an imaginary moonscape drawn by a young man who had died in Auschwitz. There was also Kalpana Chawla, the mission specialist, born and educated for much of her life in India. She embodies a combination of daring and dreaming for all who value human courage and aspiration. To build a life of excellence and achievement which is also a life of stupendous risks requires qualities which will remain somewhat inexplicable to ordinary men and women. This is why the lives, and death, of those who died on February 1 will inspire a sense not only of tragedy, but also of something considerably greater than ordinary human ambition.
But the immense risks involved in an astronaut’s profession is not simply a question of personal heroism. It makes the entire issue of space research fraught with questions which are being raised again after the Columbia tragedy. Space travel has become familiar enough in the popular imagination to make something like space tourism seem within the realm of the possible. But this could often obscure the hazards of human space flight. For the foreseeable future, all spacecraft can only be experimental vehicles, and safety must remain an open-ended issue. The international space station is currently manned by three American and Russian astronauts, whose sustenance and safe return to earth will depend entirely on how space agencies handle the aftermath of this accident. This ought to be NASA’s highest concern, apart from conducting the fullest investigation into why Columbia exploded on its way down to earth. But this is not to veto space research altogether. Robotic craft, controlled from the ground or by artificial intelligence, can never entirely replace the effectiveness of actual human presence in space. The American aerospace safety advisory panel has been warning the Congress that NASA’s budget cuts throughout the past decade had resulted in the elimination of many safety checks during launch preparations. “There are a million things that can go wrong”, one of the Columbia crew had said before taking off. The safety of the men and women who knowingly take these enormous risks must remain NASA’s greatest responsibility.