Just a month ago, seven fantastic careers and lives were lost when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry after a nearly flawless 16-day mission. It is a terrible loss to not only the families of the astronauts, but to all the people of Earth. To the families of the astronauts, we extend our deepest sympathies and best wishes. We also salute the departed astronauts for their bravery, spirit of adventure, and a job well done. These individuals were doing what they loved, following extensive careers in various endeavors and putting to work, in many ways, all of their accumulated experiences.
It will probably take many months to properly analyze the debris and determine what went wrong. NASA owes that to the families and to the memory of the Columbia astronauts, as well as to future generations of astronauts. We must decide if it was truly a one of a kind accident or if there was an intrinsic design flaw that could threaten another mission. As this is written, NASA is strongly questioning the initial theory that foam insulation broke off from the main fuel tank and damaged the under-wing, causing the disaster. We're confident that the space agency will thoroughly and honestly investigate what went wrong and, just as importantly, devise a solution to the problem that will allow the remaining three shuttles to continue what has become their primary mission—supporting the international space station.
That leads to another issue that is of grave concern. Obviously, nothing should overshadow the tragedy of the loss of seven lives. That loss, and the prevention of future deaths, should be of paramount concern. But even within the first few days after the accident, the small-thinking naysayers were opining in op ed pieces and letters to the editor that the Columbia accident should signal the end of manned space flight. Their tired old argument is that unmanned missions could accomplish all that needs to be done in space. Some went so far as to say that nothing of real value had come out of the space program in general.
Of course, they are wrong. In the 45 years since Sputnik was launched, space exploration has greatly enhanced our lives on earth. The advances in electronics, chemistry, medicine, and materials have saved many lives and improved many others. We owe a huge debt to the lucky few astronauts and cosmonauts who have ventured into space and to the thousands of engineers and scientists who made their voyages possible.
This is a time to reflect on the future of space exploration. That future must include manned space flights. Human beings belong in space in the 21st century. Sure, much preliminary work can be done by machines: Those pictures from the surface of Mars were fantastic. But humans are still needed to get the most out of the explorations and experiments that must be done, to make decisions and solve problems as they occur.
So it's distressing to learn that no next-generation manned space vehicle is in the works. Columbia's first mission was in April 1981, but it was delivered in 1979. Although modifications and upgrades have been made to the fleet, mostly notably when Endeavour was completed 12 years ago to replace Challenger, the basic technology is from the 1970s. It's time for NASA to take advantage of the tremendous strides made in electronics and materials over the last three decades. It's time for us as citizens to tell our government that is what we want our space agency to do.