"Do we really need this agency? If so, for what? Those questions lurk
between the lines of a tough report on the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
"In 1986, it was O-rings. In 2003, it was insulating foam. Beyond this
difference in proximate causes, the stories of America's two space shuttle
disasters — Challenger 17 years ago and Columbia last February — turn out
to be pretty much the same.
"In both, the organization and culture of the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration have been blamed for the loss of spacecraft and human
life. Tuesday's report on the Columbia tragedy says NASA has neglected
safety and cut corners to meet deadlines.
"This is nothing new. The report notes, "These repeating patterns mean that
flawed practices embedded in NASA's organizational system continued for 20
years and made substantial contributions to both accidents."
"It all makes us wonder if NASA can — or even should — be saved. Such a
question needs to be asked now, just as it should have been asked three
"That early crossroads turns out to have been the most fateful. It was when
NASA, fresh from its triumphant mission of putting men on the moon, had to
find a new project to justify its existence and its budget. It sold the
country on the space shuttle.
"In the years since, the shuttle has absorbed many billions of tax dollars
that could have gone into pushing back the limits of space science and
technology. It has also hogged most of the launch business in the U.S.,
leaving no room for viable private competition.
"The logical thing, in retrospect, would have been to turn the existing
space technology over to the private sector, to be transformed into a
world-beating space-launch industry.
"Instead, it's as if the federal government, 40 years after Lewis and
Clark, were clinging to a monopoly on wagon trains. It is long past time to
let the settlers do their thing and give the pioneers more meaningful work
"At this point, Congress and the president need to think seriously about
alternatives, both to the shuttle and to NASA as we know it.
"Lighter, cheaper, unmanned craft could do much of the shuttle's work, and
private capital could be found to build them if there were reasonable hope
of profit. A refocused space agency could then be freed to work on projects
at the edge of technology, such as new propulsion systems and craft needed
for interplanetary travel.
"The shuttle era has had its moments, but the next 30 years could be much
more exciting and productive if, this time, the right choices are made."