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By Carolyn Kay

President Bush was briefed after NASA lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia and was monitoring the situation, the White House said. NASA said it lost contact with the space shuttle minutes before a scheduled landing on February 1, 2003 as it crossed the United States with seven astronauts on board. A January 16, 2003 file photo shows the space shuttle Columbia crew departing for their quarters for the launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Clockwise from lower left are Pilot William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, who was raised in India, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel on the space shuttle, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Mission Commander Rick Husband in lower right. (Karl Ronstrom/Reuters)
Karl Ronstrom/Reuters

They were the best of the best.  William McCool, Kalpana Chawla—a naturalized American, Ilan Ramon—an Israeli, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Mission Commander Rick Husband gave their lives on February 1, 2003, attempting to further our knowledge of the universe.

There is no higher calling.

But were their deaths necessary?  It was the 28th mission of the space shuttle Columbia.  Though recently overhauled, the Columbia was an ancient craft.  Funding for the space program has eroded steadily over the years, without a corresponding reduction in mission.  Safety suffered.

Sound familiar?  It should.  The nation’s schools, roads, bridges—our entire infrastructure—is crumbling for lack of funding.  Privatization is touted as the answer to all our ills, yet key functions of the space program were privatized.  Presumably, turning over space exploration to the private sector, though still funded by government, reduced the cost of the program.  But what has been the price?

At one time, the space program was a national mission.  The Soviet Union was first to put a satellite into space, with Sputnik in 1957, and the first to put a man into space, in 1961.  Dwight Eisenhower started the U.S. space program, but it was John Kennedy, in May of 1961, who called us to a national challenge:  Within ten years, land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.  He called it a “great new American enterprise.”

But Kennedy had a warning, as well.  “If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all,” he said.  Congress gave Kennedy the funds he needed, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon eight years and two months from the date of Kennedy’s speech.

Since that time, many Americans have reduced their sights considerably as to the role of government.  Every government program, but especially a successful one as NASA was at one time, is a danger to a certain group, people who have dedicated thirty years and tens of millions of dollars to convincing Americans that we should not pool our resources to further our common goals.   A number of wealthy families have poured huge amounts of money into research organizations and foundations that promote this right-wing ideology.

They are extreme conservatives, reactionaries really, and their vision of government is that its only purposes are to provide for military defense of the nation and to serve as a means for transferring wealth from ordinary citizens to the already well to do by means of corporate welfare.  This group has made it very lucrative for writers, thinkers, and researchers to espouse their backward-looking point of view.  They have been so successful that they have taken over the media almost completely.  One can say they own the broadcast radio airwaves entirely, there are so few voices to put forward other views.

The result is that too many Americans have been fooled into voting for lower taxes without consideration of the consequences, and for “less government.”  The mantra is that nothing government does is good.  The strategy is to starve the functions of government so that the mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People are told they should not have to pay taxes because it is “their money.”  The truth is that most people would not suddenly receive a lot more money if the income tax were unexpectedly done away with.  But we are not encouraged to think the proposition all the way through.  If income tax laws were all repealed, say tomorrow, would companies still pay workers their gross salaries?  Probably not.  Workers would most likely continue to receive their net salaries.  So it is not “their money,” after all.

The reactionaries who seek to return us to the days before the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt have mounted an unprecedented assault on the rights, not to mention the worth, of ordinary people.  It is time for a change.

The Columbia Challenge is this:  Let us return to a belief in common purposes.  Let us work together to further the goals we share.  Let us begin to believe in ourselves and each other once again.

Are we up to the challenge?


Profiles of the Columbia Crew 2/2

Nasa chiefs 'repeatedly ignored' safety warnings, The Observer, February 2, 2003

Experts Warned Of Budget Cuts, Safety Concerns, Washington Post, February 2, 2003

Man on the moon: Kennedy speech ignited the dream, CNN, May 25, 2001

Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, John F. Kennedy Library


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