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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 11:21 GMT
What future for space exploration?
The space shuttle Columbia lifts off on 16 January 2003 from the Kennedy space centre in Florida
Following the loss of the US space shuttle, Columbia, with seven astronauts on board, what is the future for space travel?

The families of the astronauts killed in the accident have said space exploration must continue.

Columbia broke up soon after re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

The family of astronaut Laurel Clark said she had sent them e-mails on Friday speaking of her love of space.

"She was proud to be representing her country and dealing with advanced scientific projects from all over the world," her aunt Betty Havilan told local television in Wisconsin.

In an address to the nation President Bush said the space programme will go on.

Is he right to say that mankind's urge to explore and longing to understand mean that space exploration should continue?

Or are the dangers simply too great - and the costs too high to justify such flights? Should this be the last space mission?


This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Why do we spend so much money on space exploration? Why does the government spend money on the arts? To be human is more than to just survive: civilized societies hunger for beauty, truth, and knowledge. To stifle our capability and desire to explore is not only unthinkable, it's impossible. If you could ask any of the seven astronauts who perished if they held any regret for the cause for which they died, I'm certain they'd tell you no.
K Fromer, USA

The exploration of space already stops wars

Adam Manning, UK
If exploring space was going to be stopped because it was a ridiculous waste of money and lives, it would have ended long ago; it might never have started. Now that it has begun, it cannot be stopped, anymore than early humans could have prevented their kinsmen leaving the ancestral African plains all those millennia ago, or later naysayers could have stopped people taking to the air. The evolution of life will always find ways to expand; the evolution of life is working through us. The exploration of space already stops wars; the images of our world as one beautiful whole have already shown us the folly of our petty divisions.
Adam Manning, U.K.

Everything has its costs. Space is still a very unknown and hostile place for human beings, but these scientists and astronauts help us understand more and more about the mysteries it keeps inside. Space exploration and manned spaceflights are very important for human race to survive in the future. I hope they will continue this work despite this tragedy. I give all my respect to the Columbia crew and their families.
Antti Haka, Finland

However tragic the whole thing is I honestly don't understand the huge fuss. It's in essence a traffic accident, hundreds more are killed everyday on the roads and are hardly mentioned. The same day the shuttle broke, close to 50 people died in Lagos, Nigeria. Who's talking about them?
Helen Hansen, Switzerland

The 70's technology is the problem, not space travel itself.

Dan, UK
The idea of abandoning space travel as a result of this tragedy is simply unthinkable. Quite apart from the benefits we gain from space technology filtering into our daily lives, we have an unsolvable problem in that we live on a planet with finite resources. However carefully we conserve and manage these resources, the fact is that they will one day be gone. Our only long term hope for survival as a species is to find new worlds and new resources in space. If there are to be consequences from Columbia's terrible accident, they should be to increase funding for research into safer spacecraft and more efficient propulsion systems. The 70's technology is the problem, not space travel itself.
Dan, UK

20 years is a long time for any vehicle. NASA has been starved for funds since Apollo 11. It's time money be put forward for the next generation of launchers. Columbia's crew died for the noblest of causes, the expansion of human knowledge, it's not the time to shy away.
Gareth Perkins, Australian in UK

Some years ago, I had a good look at the shuttle in Florida. I was amazed at the 'Heath Robinson' build (it is based on 70s technologies) with untidy looking pipes meandering around and crude control systems. I am staggered that the shuttles have survived multiple take offs and landings so well. If I had the budget for NASA, I would say, "Go build a modern shuttle guys, one that can be used more regularly and requires less maintenance." The cost cutting by Congress did not help space exploration at all.
Chris Powell, UK

There is newer technology in children's toys than there is in the Shuttle.

Andy Cox, UK
The exploration of Space and the Shuttle program in particular represent the pinnacle of mankind's technical and engineering achievements. NASA has over the last 20 years faced massive budget cuts and heavy criticism from US government. Enormous pressure to perform and still operate under tight budget constraints will ultimately lead to short cuts being made. This is not acceptable in the arena of manned space exploration. Within reason, if we are to explore space it must founded sufficiently and new technologies developed. There is newer technology in children's toys than there is in the Shuttle. It's technology is over 30 years old!
Andy Cox, UK

The prime "suspect" appears to be damage sustained to the wheel-bay door shortly after take-off. NASA engineers suggest that even if such damage had been recognised, there was nothing the crew could have done to repair it - they would effectively have been "lost in space". A rescue mission could not have been undertaken at such short notice without "throwing away the rule book". This seems to be an unacceptable risk and, in any case, surely Columbia could have diverted to the International Space Station as a temporary refuge, pending the launching of a delayed rescue mission.
Neil Bolland, Montenegro

Re: Neil Bolland. The Columbia lacked the ability to dock with the International Space Station. This capability is reserved for the newer Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour. Even if it had the capability, there is not enough fuel capacity on any Space Shuttle to change the orbit such that a docking could be performed.
Anonymous, Houston, USA

Our thoughts and prayers are with the astronauts families in this difficult time, but I hope that they can take heart that their loved ones were lost in pursuit of their dreams and that the shuttle programme will continue in their honour and those who have perished striving to reach the stars and push the boundaries of mankind's knowledge of its environment. It was in this spirit that the space programme was begun and should continue.
Jo, Britain

The remaining shuttles need to examined carefully for age-related issues

Suzie, USA
The loss of life is tragic. I think Columbia was 21 years old and the stress of repeated launch and re-entry just did it in. I also think that things like this happen and could happen to any aircraft, new or old. Anyway, The remaining shuttles need to examined carefully for age-related issues, and perhaps, one or two could be retired to museums, a new one or two built with improvements. There has to have been some engineering progress since Columbia was introduced and those improvements should be part of new design, not add-ons or fixes to old equipment. Let's move forward.
Suzie, USA

Listening to the comments made by the Israeli astronaut was quite a moving experience. More than ever now I want to get onto the Space Program. Perhaps in 20 years time we won't need to worry about war and other crises, and I will be able to look down to the Earth and know that all is well with the world, and I will be a little closer to God's heaven
John, UK

Columbia was a terrible tragedy. However, the risks involved with shuttle launches and landings are no greater than they were one week ago. It's a shame that Nasa have decided to ground all planned shuttle launches pending investigation into the accident. Now Russia has to struggle alone to ensure the astronauts onboard the ISS have enough food and other supplies. The future of the ISS is in jeopardy. When there's a plane crash, rarely does the airline involved ground it's entire fleet. Forgive me if this comes across as a little insensitive but remember that all astronauts know the risks involved and choose to take them.
Ric Downey, Sweden

Its benefits are dubious at best.

Sal, USA
Stop the wasteful spending on space exploration. Its benefits are dubious at best. Why are we lining the pockets of the military contractors that work for NASA? Rather than exploring outer space, let's look at what it means to be compassionate human beings. Let us educate our children and feed the hungry.
Sal, USA

The Columbia tragedy should not be blown up out of proportion. Space travel is dangerous, but then so is any air travel, and we don't ban all air flights because an aircraft crashes killing hundreds. If every effort is made to ensure the astronauts safety then that is all we can ask. I don't even think the Shuttle launches should be suspended (and I bet future astronauts agree too); instead give Nasa the money it needs to build the next generation of space craft while implementing safety procedures for the current shuttles.
Keith Marriott, UK

We owe it to those brave men and women who perished in the shuttle disaster and to their families, to press on with the conquest of man's last frontier, Space. Let us not turn away in horror from this great enterprise for fear of the price. Let us not allow our consciences to make cowards of us all, lest enterprises of great pitch and moment, their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action! This would surely be the greater tragedy!
Beverley Niblett, India

Shutting down the manned flight program would cheapen the deaths of the astronauts

Steve Barber, United States
I am as stunned by the loss of Columbia as everyone, but the view that this should signal an end to manned exploration is short-sighted at best. While national prestige is undoubtedly a small element of our space program, generations from now will regard it as a human effort, not an American one.

Shutting down the manned flight program not only wouldn't be prudent, but would cheapen the deaths of the astronauts and cosmonauts who felt the effort worth their lives. And if you need a more real-world reason for the program look no further than your laptop, satellite television program, daily weather report or next medical appointment.
Steve Barber, United States

Manned and unmanned space exploration are both extremely important to the future survival of the human species. There is always going to be a massive amount of risk in manned space exploration but it shouldn't stop us. We should instead rise to the challenge and honour the seven brave explorers who have gone before us by continuing to push the limits. If I had the opportunity to further the advancement of mankind by getting on a space shuttle I would do it tomorrow. I believe in NASA and I believe in manned space exploration. Space exploration is one of the few positive things happening on this planet where war and famine are all around us. My deepest sympathy goes out to the family and friends of the seven astronauts.
Mike, UK

Shouldn't we be spending more funds and effort on cleaning up our earthly issues first?

Geof, Ohio, USA
I live in a country that has 41 million medically uninsured citizens. I live in a city where in some schools only 30% of the young students are passing reading tests. There were over 60 homicides in my city last year. Shouldn't we be spending more funds and effort on cleaning up our earthly issues first?
Geof, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

How many astronauts have the Russians lost? They never gave up, so why should the States?
Sean Aaron, Scotland

I would hazard a guess that more than seven people a day are killed on Britain's road, are you going to ban driving because it is too dangerous?
Chris Weston, England

I strongly feel that we just aren't ready for space exploration. Rocket technology, however advanced by earth standards are primitive as far as space is concerned. Sitting on top of a small nuclear bomb is not my idea of exploring the unknown.

Until we acquire radically new propulsion know-how and new space worthy materials we must concentrate on unmanned missions and work on A1 software/smart machines/image recognition/robotics etc which will minimise the need for humans. As things stand now, space flight is equivalent to crossing the Atlantic on a log....possible but certainly not practical. We just aren't ready yet !!
D. Sanjit, India

D. Sanjit, India is spot on. What additional benefit does manned space travel provide over unmanned exploration? None. I can only think that prestige is at stake.
Tony, UK

The next generation space shuttle is long overdue

Paul, UK
D. Sanjit, India, should give the space program a little more credit. Space flight has proved to be just a little more survivable than crossing the Atlantic on a log. Our current technology could be better compared to the sailing ships of several hundred years ago. The occasional ship sinking in a storm didn't stop people setting to sea. Until there's a robot probe built to be as versatile, adaptable and intelligent as a human, there'll always be a need for manned space flights. The next generation space shuttle is long overdue, and I hope this tragic event will at least spur on some progress in this area.
Paul, UK

We have to continue our space programme. Not only because we think we have to, but for the sake of the unbelievably brave Columbia crew! We own them that.
Samuel, Finland

Nasa has been denied funding for so long that they are forced to buy second hand computers to replace the ones they have because the only compatible technology for most of their systems is 15 years old. Nasa should have gone to the next generation of manned space craft a generation ago. Hopefully now the American Government will give them the funds to do so.
Iain Hicken, England

Manned spaceflight will continue

Rajeev Dutt, Germany
Considering the extreme conditions of spaceflight, it is no small miracle that accidents have not happened more often. Credit must be given to the engineers and technicians at Nasa. Manned spaceflight will continue. The rewards of inhabiting other worlds are far too great.
Rajeev Dutt, Germany

Before we talk about what can be done for the future of space travel, the US administration should take seriously experts' warnings. I am bewildered to read off a free daily here that President Bush ignored a letter from a former Nasa head warning of 3,500 wiring and other defects on the Columbia last year. As fate would have it, President Bush didn't read it. Or chose not to perhaps. And how about the 40% budget cuts served on Nasa? Isn't space exploration more important than waging war that is obviously a self-serving purpose than anything else?
Angie, Singapore

Columbia was a tragedy. If we stopped our exploration of space, that would be a disaster.
Chris Boote, UK

Since the whole experiment is for the whole of mankind, why can't every nation in this planet share the cost of such an expensive programme? In return, every country should get an opportunity to send their scientists to space - the benefits will be quick and enormous.
B. Sen, India

The shuttle was designed precisely to make space travel routine

Des, London, UK
The Nasa chief said this should remind us that travel into space is never routine. The shuttle was designed over 30 years ago precisely to make space travel routine. The only astronomical thing it has achieved has been its ever bloated costs. Manned space flight, though not space exploration, should cease completely until it becomes as safe as air travel. At least as safe as air travel was in, say, the 1960s.

Above all, Nasa's direct role should be reduced as much as possible. The systems they produce are too complicated because Nasa is a large fossilised state-company. If 20 private companies were charged with designing the simplest possible surface-to-orbit vehicle, with the reward that they could operate it afterwards a whole new world of safe reliable space travel would open up. It is only a 100km journey after all.
Des, London, UK

To Des, London: I think that if you look at the statistics of American space flight, three accidents over 40 years, it would seem to me that it is statistically safer than air travel. Also, in regards to it being a bloated government operation, I think that it has been made clear in the news lately, that it is more privatised than it has ever been, maybe too privatised.
Jeff, USA

The ultimate goal of the human species is self preservation. It is a fact that the earth will become uninhabitable for us someday. Space exploration is the activity of a responsible society, whose interest lies in ALL of us. Therefore our ultimate fate as a species lies in the hands of their research.
John E, UK

This is not a time for arguments, we can learn from our mistakes, and go ahead. We need to explore more than space.
Ibraheem Bayan, India

I admire the American spirit of "let's just do it"

S Ahmed, UK
It will be extremely sad if mankind gives up in the face of tragedy! This is when it can be described as failure! I don't remember reading about a moment in history when mankind gave up his endeavour for exploration and progress. However we must learn from our mistakes. space shuttle Columbia was a 25-year-old craft, which should have been subjected to through check. I must say I admire the American spirit of "let's just do it". If the shuttle was British, out media would have been merciless in their criticism.
S. Ahmed, UK

People don't realise how many of today's great inventions started as something to be developed for the space programme. We may as well give up on everything as everything has an element of risk if we follow the same logic. We're worried about earth overcrowding when there's so many moons and planets to explore and colonise. Should we stop? No!
Steve G, UK

I am just as curious as anyone else to learn that there is life on other planets, and that we are not truly alone in this universe, however; I think that the sheer cost of space exploration and the fact that we haven't exactly got our rocket science down pat, as demonstrated recently, is a strong indication that we need to put our needs to discover on hold for the time being. We obviously have enough problems on the ground that we need to address.
Joaquin Dominick, United States

It should not only be continued but expanded

Tristan Ankerstar, USA
The space program is humanity's great attempt to become something greater than it now is, to understand our universe and our place in it. I believe it to be the greatest thing yet accomplished by our species, and it should not only be continued but expanded. The USA should spend less money on the military and put greater emphasis on this greatest of all endeavours.
Tristan Ankerstar, USA

If we don't get out into space, we may still become extinct. As Tsiolkovsky said, "Earth is the cradle of Mankind, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."
Mike, UK

The astronauts spent years training to know the risks. It is a horrific tragedy, but to cancel the space programme would be wrongly focusing on this, one (of only a few) failures rather than the many amazing successes and scientific progresses Nasa has made. I believe that the astronauts who died would certainly not want that to happen.
Sarah Keen, Birmingham, UK

I sympathise with the family, friends and colleagues of the Columbia astronauts, however stopping the endeavour for which they willingly gave their lives would not be the epitaph they would have wanted. Yes manned spaceflight is dangerous and will be for some considerable time, however it is only by doing and experimenting and learning from our mistakes that we improve.

We cannot predict the long term benefits of manned spaceflight, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. If we really wish to honour the memories of those 7 men and women there is only one road to travel: we must go onwards. Now is the time for greater investment to prove that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Martin J. G. Williams, U.K.

Space travel should definitely continue, there are vast amounts of knowledge and resources just waiting to be found! But this continued exploration should be built upon a continued improvement of the hardware, not some 1980's technology. There has to be a complete review of the organization if space research were to progress.
Gabwu, Singapore

As has been said many times above, space exploration is just as dangerous today as was the early exploration of the oceans tall ships and little navigational technology. Space exploration must continue but I think the time has come for a world space organisation with participating nations contributing towards the cost.

The current situation with disparate agencies ploughing separate furrows is a waste of resources with duplicated expenses and research and little shared experience. I know it will not happen overnight, and may not happen for many years, but we all also know it is inevitable one day. Why not now?
Steve Pearson, Manchester, UK

This is another terrible tragedy but it should not stop us from striving to better ourselves and to understand more of the universe than the tiny speck upon which we live. Nasa should be bold in dealing with this and retire the remaining shuttles. The money spent on maintaining technology which is thirty years old would be better spent developing the next generation of space vehicles which could only build upon the proud pioneering spirit of the shuttles.
Lee Upcraft, France

Isn't there enough to do on earth let alone looking to going into space? There is so much suffering on earth and man is so selfish wanting to fulfil his own ambitions.
D Woolrich, England

One day I hope to go into space

Eric, USA
I went to the Nasa website to read about the loss of the Columbia, but soon I lost myself in stories of other missions, photographs and videos of our universe, our planets, our sun and many more wondrous things. Then I realised how wonderful our space program really truly is.

One day I hope to go into space, and see the world as a great blue marble. I know deep down this will never happen in my lifetime, but for the Columbia Crew, they lived the life that my dreams are made of. God bless them all.
Eric, USA

On the same day that the Columbia broke up, seven skiers died in an avalanche in Canada. Does that mean that skiing should be banned? If anything should be banned, it should be war.
Steve, Canada

I would say that it's time to retire the shuttles. I've heard there have been plans for years for a space plane, which is much cheaper to operate.

Maybe it's time to look into that, since the shuttles themselves have been sending Nasa warning signs that they are ready for the museum. How many missions have been cancelled in the last 3 or 4 years due to mechanical, structural, and technological problems with the shuttle?
Heather, USA

Nasa receives only a paltry $14.5bn a year. This should be compared with the nearly $350bn per year the Defense Department receives. Considering the scientific importance of space travel, it would seem that our priorities are just a bit mixed up.

It is high time that space travel and exploration took a higher place on the list of American priorities. Rather than spending all of our time ruining the world for future generations, as we are now doing, America, as the most powerful nation on earth, should lead the way to a better, safer, and more enlightened future.
Doug Lyons, USA

The future for space exploration should be bright. I believe it needs to be. What will come out over the next few days may well obscure the fact that the US Governments have over the years been paring Nasa's budgets back to the point where safety, always the main criterion, was beginning to be eroded.

Space flight is equivalent to crossing the Atlantic on a log - possible but certainly not practical

D Sanjit
India
Anyone who has followed the space programs (such as they are these days) will agree with this. It is part of the reason why unmanned missions are cancelled, or if they go ahead, fail because of a technical problem. Underinvestment, whether in Railtrack or Nasa, eventually costs lives and not mere money.
Richard Blake-Reed, Bath, UK

Why do they waste billions on space research when half of the world go without food. More of this wasted money should be allocated to dealing with world poverty. Aliens do not exist when will they realise this? If they did exist they would have found them many years ago.
Omar Khan, England, UK

The loss of the Columbia and its crew was tragic. Yet it is certain that the exploration of space will continue as well as the Nasa program. With so much success in the past we seem to take these mission as being routine, they are anything but. Hopefully we will also look at the colonisation of the seas and explore our inner space as well.
Rod S, USA

We need space research. We always try to be hard-nosed, looking at the economic value of space research. It is true that today's computer systems, aero-engineering and, yes, Velcro and frying pans owe a lot to the space programme.

It is tragic that lives are lost, but the exploration and eventual colonisation of space are so incredibly important to the future of mankind that the programme must continue

Mark Hickman, England
What really matters, though is the vision of man's future as an explorer of our solar system and, perhaps, beyond. The crew of seven knew the risks, they had bought into the vision. We, in respect for their memory and for the future they imagined, should not give up on the programme they died for.
Craig Livingstone, UK

The loss of the space shuttle and death of seven crew members is a tragedy. On the other hand every single day thousands of people get killed or are going to be killed, especially in the perspective of the war against Iraq led by the US.

When there is a plane crash, dozens of people are gone, nevertheless such accidents do not stop us flying. We are only pioneers in the space and every mission is as dangerous as it was dangerous and dared to sail across the oceans in earlier times.
Denis , Estonia

Space travel has been happening for 40 years, but even so our knowledge and understanding of both it and the Universe is still woefully small. It is tragic that lives are lost, but the exploration and eventual colonisation of space are so incredibly important to the future of mankind that the programme must continue, with more vigour not less.

Hundreds of years ago many lives were lost as ships departed overseas on voyages of discovery. If these pioneers had abandoned their efforts then our development as a species today would be significantly less.
Mark Hickman, England

Although the loss of the Columbia is an extremely sad event, and all my sympathies go to all the families involved, the casualties involved may go some way to demonstrating the futility of space travel. We spend billions each year on un-illuminating travel into space while millions of others on our own planet starve to death. Curiosity and exploration may help make us human, but compassion defines our very humanity.
Edd Morris, Warwick University, UK

If humans stopped pursuing endeavours after each setback, we would still be living in the stone age. Space travel is not more dangerous than flying by airplane at the dawn of avionics. Space technology hasn't matured enough yet, and unfortunately there is human cost involved while refining it. But space exploration should and will continue for the good of mankind.
James, UK

Although the loss of Columbia was shocking and terribly sad, it is important to remember that this crew of seven brave explorers and brilliant scientists died doing precisely what they loved doing - literally loved doing more than anything on Earth. Let's also remember that they knew very keenly the great risks they were undertaking, just as many explorers from Europe knew the risks when trying to reach the Americas.

We lost our first Israeli astronaut but our children will continue his mission

Dr Ana Heller
Tel Aviv University, Israel
Imagine how shocked and disappointed Columbia's crew (and Challenger's) would be if they were to learn that their own misfortune had caused mankind to become so risk-averse that we, as a species, simply stopped trying to strive via manned spaceflight, for both self-knowledge and knowledge about the wondrous universe in which we exist.

Space flight brings innumerable tangible and intangible benefits to the entire human race. I offer this: let's never forget the Columbia's admirable crew, but let's keep striving assiduously for the stars, in their names and memories.
Todd Hill, Canada

We lost our first Israeli astronaut but our children will continue his mission.
Dr Ana Heller
Tel Aviv University, Israel

Accessing space is the ultimate human challenge. But it's catastrophically expensive, which is why the unique and extraordinarily Space Shuttle won't be replaced even in the next 20 years. No-one can politically justify the money at the moment. But there are huge - if not immediately apparent to the man in the street - benefits to space exploration, which is why it will and must go on.
Alastair Stevens, UK

The loss of the Columbia and its crew is no less of a tragedy than the loss of the Challenger. I don't, however, think that this should spell the end of space exploration since I am sure all aboard were aware of the risks and chose to take them. The fact that in this incident the mission ended in disaster should not end our space research, just as the tragedy of a train crash does not spell the end of travel by rail.
John B, UK

Exploration is part and parcel of who we are. Explorers are our heroes and they have changed the world. The space programme is important for so many reasons. However we should develop better space-faring technology. The space shuttle has been described as a "flying brick". Surely it's time for the next generation of craft?
Roop, UK

A sense of curiosity and a compulsion to explore are what makes us human. Without these traits we would still be living in caves or - more likely - we would have become extinct long ago.
Bryan, UK


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