By Steve Holt, Copy Editor
Four days removed from the second-worst space shuttle disaster ever, whispers can be heard discussing the future of the space program in the United States, and more specifically, NASA.
Some of those most deeply saddened by the Columbia explosion have been divided over a crucial question:
Is manned space exploration really worth the risk?
For members of the ACU community connected to NASA, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”
Dr. Donald Robbins, former deputy director of space and life sciences at NASA, is now an adjunct professor in the Department of Physics. Robbins said he doesn’t think Saturday’s event will stop the space program.
“I don’t think those who are in areas of power in the executive department and Congress want to go on the record as the people who killed NASA,” said Robbins, who worked at Johnson Space Center in Houston for 33 years. He added that many advantages to the space program exist, both tangible and intangible.
“It has pushed technology in many ways that have applied in everyday life,” Robbins said. “It has given the nation and world imagination.”
Robbins’ colleagues agree with him. Dr. Rusty Towell, assistant professor of physics, said any money spent on the space program is justified.
“If we don’t continue to learn and keep on the cutting edge, we will fall behind the world,” Towell said. “This is the second accident out of over 140 launches, and 99 percent is a success ratio most would be excited about. It would be short-sighted to kill the space program.”
Kyle McAlister, class of 1989 and former staff member in NASA’s office of public affairs, equated Saturday’s disaster with dangers in other modern technology.
“We as a nation, I think, have a certain tolerance for risk. Planes crash; people die,” McAlister said. “But people fly because there’s benefit that goes along with the risk. Those astronauts knew the risks. I think we’ll be back to flight.”
President Bush released his proposed 2004 budget Monday, and in it he called for a $500 million increase in NASA’s budget. This would bring its yearly budget to roughly $15.47 billion.
Robbins said NASA already receives too little, and any more funding is sorely needed.
“If we look at what losing seven astronauts does to a nation emotionally, we can justify spending more money to save lives,” Robbins said. “We have paid large amounts of money for a whole lot less; one was in the latter part of last month-meaning the Super Bowl.”
Until the cause of the Columbia explosion is confirmed, which will likely be a while, officials and scholars agree the space program will stand still. But Robbins said man’s desire to learn about the space around him eventually will lead him again.
“[The space program] gives us some intellectual satisfaction dealing with some questions that are quite large and that everyone is curious about,” Robbins said. “We don’t live in a cocoon here; we live in a universe, and it’s worth learning about the universe we live in.”