To Infinity & Beyond | Teen Ink

To Infinity & Beyond MAG

By Anonymous

     "Columbia, this is Houston, are you there?Columbia, do you copy?" Despite the prayers of the world, no miracle wasforthcoming on the morning of February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbiabroke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Many wondered how this couldhave happened.

With years of successful missions, it became all too easyto take the astronauts' dangerous work for granted. NASA exhibited complacencyregarding mission safety, and in this case was convinced its shuttles couldfunction optimally despite damaged components.

In the case of theColumbia, NASA knew the insulating foam had struck the heat-absorbing tiles,posing a danger for its re-entry into the atmosphere. NASA's leadership chose tounder-emphasize the danger rather than fully explore its options to rectify thesituation, leading to the tragedy. With years of underfunding, NASA's leadershiphas been forced to walk the tightrope between shuttle safety and meetingdeadlines. Such frugality led to risks and rationalization blinding many to itsforemost responsibility: safety.

The result of the Columbia fiasco wasthat the shuttle fleet was grounded indefinitely, and even now the future ofAmerican leadership in space travel remains murky.

In all fairness toNASA, the tragedy was not completely its fault. Years of insufficientcongressional funding and the current mission of ferrying parts to theInternational Space Station led to agency inertia. In effect, NASA's shuttleprogram has become a $10 billion shipping agency lacking the clearly defined andinspirational missions of the past.

Beyond new leadership and morefunding, what NASA needs is a new mission. Landing people on Mars or colonizingouter space are achievable goals that would rejuvenate NASA and rekindleAmericans' interest in the space program. More important, these missions wouldrequire more reliable rocket technology. It is worth remembering that many of thegreat technological advances of the 1960s and 1970s stemmed from the work ofNASA's engineers. Given a new purpose and adequate funding, who is to say thatNASA cannot return to that level of success and safety enjoyed in the 1960s and1970s, when it was the world's premier scientific agency.

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