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Shuttle disaster

Other editors say

Do the scientific research benefits outweigh the risks of space flight?

The Washington Post

Last Tuesday, the seven astronauts on board shuttle Columbia took a break from their marathon scientific experiments to remember the day and moment, exactly 17 years earlier, when the seven crew members of the shuttle Challenger lost their lives high above the Kennedy Space Center. Recalling that tragedy and the 1967 Apollo spacecraft fire, Columbia mission commander Rick Husband, in a special call to Mission Control in Houston, said the Challenger crew made the ultimate sacrifice giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind. Saturday, Cmdr. Husband and his six crewmates, in a catastrophe as shocking and heartbreaking as the 1986 Challenger disaster, gave their lives in the line of duty to the ever-unfolding and still-perilous exploration of outer space.

The 16-day orbital science mission had been judged a success. Working in shifts around the clock, and without walks in space or some of the other more eye-catching pursuits of past space missions, Columbia's diverse crew of astronauts conducted research in the spacecraft and its attached laboratory. They grew bone and prostate cancer tissue in search of new ways to treat those diseases. They investigated more effective fire-suppression systems. Working weightlessly 170 miles up in space, the crew conducted more than 80 scientific experiments. Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, captured images of smoke from the Brazilian rain forest and a dust storm in the atmosphere over the Mediterranean in an experiment to learn more about the influence of migrating dust plumes on climate in the Middle East and worldwide. Said Col. Ramon, applauding the participation of an international community of scientists on the mission, including Arab researchers: The atmosphere is so thin and fragile, and I think everybody, all of us ... have to keep it clean and good. It saves our life and gives our life.

The accident will reopen questions about whether the benefits of such science outweigh the continuing risks and costs of human space flight as opposed to unmanned space exploration. Such questions are even more urgent today than 17 years ago, as the International Space Station, inhabited since 2000, depends on shuttle flights to rotate crews and deliver cargo. President Bush did not hesitate Saturday to provide his answer. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand, he said. Our journey into space will go on.

But the more immediate questions will focus on the cause of this disaster. The space shuttle had performed flawlessly, flight director Leroy Cain said on Friday. The routine pre-landing checks of systems critical to a safe re-entry showed no signs of trouble, he said. Yes, a video reportedly showed that insulating foam breaking away during launch might have damaged fragile tiles near Columbia's left wing that protect the shuttle during re-entry, when the temperature soars. But Mr. Cain said that the situation was carefully studied by engineers and that he and they had no concerns whatsoever.

So what happened over central Texas during the Columbia's 12,500 mph dive through Earth's atmosphere? As a sign of the times, thoughts turned to terrorism, if only for a moment. Those fears were discounted early; the shuttle breakup occurred at an altitude of at least 200,000 feet, a distance far out of range of surface-to-air missiles. Columbia's disintegration, said a NASA official Saturday, was not caused by anything or anyone on the ground. The horrific tragedy is, nonetheless, under investigation by NASA and other arms of the government. The cause must and will be found. And, as NASA has said, it must and will be fixed. There will be moments of silence in the memory of the courageous and dedicated Columbia astronauts who remind us that there is nothing routine about the exploration of space.