When the Challenger came apart in the sky 17 years ago, killing all seven astronauts aboard, President Reagan said that following the successful flight to the moon in 1969, Americans had come to believe that space travel was routine.
The Challenger tragedy, he said, was a jarring reminder that space is the last frontier and that astronauts are the brave pioneers trying to conquer it. We should never grow complacent again about the complexities and dangers of putting human beings into an engineering and scientific marvel called a shuttle, shooting them into space, and then bringing them back at stupefying speeds.
But we did grow complacent again, lulled into such confidence that shuttle flights were safe that the media barely covered them anymore. The last time a shuttle story attracted public attention was nearly five years ago when former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the first man to orbit Earth, went on a nine-day Discovery flight at the age of 77.
Few Americans even knew of Columbia's rendezvous with space when it blew apart over the Texas sky early Saturday morning, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
And now, just as in 1986, the finger-pointing and recriminations have begun. This is a painful exercise, but the investigations must be allowed to run their course. NASA has already started a probe. Congress is sure to hold hearings.
Ultimately, though, an independent commission should be named to investigate Columbia, just as Challenger was. Not only should the cause of the tragic accident be probed, but some fundamental questions answered.
What, for instance, is the best way to explore space - with manned flights or robots? There's a body of thinking that much more is learned by robots. Look at the huge success of the Hubble space telescope.
But human beings can make decisions, observations and judgments that go way beyond the narrow scope of a robot.
Of course human space flights should continue. The astronauts who perished Saturday would be aghast that space exploration would be discontinued because of their tragedy. That is not how they would want to be remembered.
The question is under what conditions human space flight should be continued. The space shuttles were state-of-the-art in the 1970s when they were built, but by 2003 standards they're pretty long in the tooth. They're well-used - 28 flights for Columbia before it came apart. Would you want to be driving around in a 1970-era car?
If we are to continue the space-shuttle and space station programs, we should construct spacecraft worthy of the 21st century. NASA says safety is its top priority, but that cannot be so unless the financial and engineering commitments follow.
On a more down-to-Earth note, it didn't take long for the scum of humanity to show up on eBay, trying to sell alleged debris from the Columbia tragedy. The grave-robbers, however, were quickly shut down by authorities. Hopefully, they'll be prosecuted as well.
At times such as these, the height and depth of humanity are both in evidence.
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