She was a double-wide trailer fitted with angel wings. She could heft 4 million pounds into space and fly 17,000 mph and pass unscathed through a blast furnace that would pulverize a solid block of concrete and melt battlefield armor.

She cradled delicate scientific experiments, finicky computers and the most precious cargo imaginable, human lives.

Between the journeys through Hell, she would sit on the runways, sleek, strong and proud. Sometimes, it seems, she must have known what she meant to us as we watched her soar.

She did it all, and since April 12, 1981, she had done it over and over. Until Saturday.

One of the four toughest machines on earth died when the Columbia shattered over Texas. The heartbreaking thunder of that destruction also may be the death knell of America's Space Age.

George W. Bush's NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, had come aboard with a mission to sort out the agency's money woes, stop cost overruns and narrow the focus of research.

There are some places in government where a bean counter should be in charge. This isn't one of them.

It was O'Keefe's call to squeeze more years out of the four space shuttles. The youngest is a decade old. Yet the fleet, once set for retirement in 2012, was enlisted to fly until 2020 or longer.

NASA's budget has no room to find replacements for the space shuttle. They could be built, but not without more money than the agency has to build them. Last year NASA disclosed that estimates for a shuttle replacement using the best of the new technologies might reach $30 billion -- double the agency's entire 2003 budget.

Meanwhile, NASA's engineers did yeoman work on Columbia -- more than 100 safety improvements, better computers and other modifications -- but something as complex as she was, taking such a pounding, cannot last forever.

As Columbia was coaxed through more flights, she became a symbol, to insiders, of NASA's growing problem. Tight budgets forced an emphasis on short-term planning, with Columbia, the weakest sister of the four shuttles, retrofitted and patched to keep her flying. Long-term fixes went to the back burner, designs for her replacement gathered dust, and each day those designs, too, grew more obsolete.

Ominous warnings sounded, and they were met by even more ominous reactions.

After an expert panel flat out told Congress space shuttles were becoming a safety risk because of NASA's budget woes, NASA sacked five of the panel's nine members and two consultants.

NASA is in danger of becoming an R&D arm of the military that occasionally, with the extra time and money, puts on a feel-good performance for the public.

Do we want to be in space? If so, make the commitment. That will take money. Congress holds that purse, and NASA builds no highways or dams in anyone's home district. The thousand benefits of the space program could never have been foreseen; funding an unknown future takes vision.

If we're not committed to space exploration, let's cut bait. Don't risk any more lives. Drop the J.F.K. rhetoric. Concentrate on close-to-home problems, like fighting wars in Asia. Leave the future, and the high frontier, for others.

Past the United States, 15 other nations have committed to develop and operate a space station. They will find a way to carry on. The Chinese may put an astronaut in space within a year. The Europeans have cooperated on a rocket program. Russia, suffering economically as it is, has not yielded its role in space.

But America's first space tragedy, a 1967 launchpad fire that killed three Apollo astronauts, awakened the nation to the risks of leading humanity into the final frontier. America, behind its political leadership, rallied from that tragedy and little more than two years later Apollo 11 touched the moon.


Online Work





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© February 4, 2003 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"