Roll On, Columbia

I'M NEVER GOING into space. This is a big disappointment. I grew up in the era of the Mercury astronauts, the New Frontier, and Apollo 11. As a baby boomer, I assumed rocket rides were a birthright of our generation. In 1962, Seattle hosted "the first Space Age" world's fair, and the hype suggested that we were the new gateway to the stars. If humans were going to explore "the final frontier," they would be launched by technology developed here, a town settled at the edge of the last Earth-bound frontier.

The closest I got to space was a ride on the supersonic Concorde, which I flew from Paris to London to New York to Seattle in 1984 when the aircraft made its debut visit here. I was part of a lucky press contingent on board and enjoyed the experience of flying at Mach 2 at 60,000 feet. Except for the endless gourmet food, it was like most other jet flights, but two things stand out in memory. One was that through the small windows, the high- altitude daytime sky was an eerie deep blue that suggested we could skip off into orbit at any time. The other was that on takeoff, we rose at a startlingly steep angle.

SUNDAY MORNING, in a follow-up to the gut-wrenching Columbia space-shuttle tragedy, I watched ABC. George Stephanopolous interviewed John Glenn, a boyhood hero of mine who last went into space in 1998 at age 77. He's now in his 80s but hasn't aged a day. Indeed, the once baby-faced Stephanopolous looks like he's logged more miles. And as I look in the mirror, I realize I'm less fit to go into orbit now than is a man nearly 35 years my senior. No one I know of is planning to take middle-aged fat guys into space yet—not even the Russians.

Despite my vastly diminished odds of experiencing space flight, I believe strongly in space exploration. I've held this belief despite a strong skepticism about technology and the military-engineering culture that surrounds the space program. While my fellow liberals have argued that we have higher priorities here on Earth, I think we need a vital space program for our well-being.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was writing about the Boeing space station and was out there doing interviews. A bank of file cabinets was awaiting the movers, and a waggish engineer had taped a sign on them: "Careful. The contents of these cabinets is vital to the future of the human race!" Funny, but true. I maintain a romantic belief that above us, among the stars and planets, we might one day find our better selves. As frail and foolish as our species is, space exploration can be an outlet and a catalyst for our best impulses. We can literally rise above our narrowest interests and expand knowledge for its own sake. It creates a kind of secular, sacred precinct that feeds and frees the spirit. Space is a limitless playground where we can test the imagination.

UNFORTUNATELY, IT CAN also be a tool for the worst in us. This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell is using satellite photos to help make the case for war against Iraq. As he does, it underscores that much of the core commitment the United States has to space is driven by a vision of its militarization. From spy satellites to missile defense, our space program now largely looks downward, not upward. Earth orbit has become a defense platform rather than a launch pad to better worlds.

Our priorities on Earth say it all. The space-shuttle program has been limited to four or five flights per year, much in the service of science. The NASA budget for fiscal 2003 is about $15 billion. The proposed war in Iraq alone has been estimated at between $50 billion and $100 billion—even a sky-high $200 billion. What could we accomplish through a policy of containment coupled with an aggressive commitment to expanding our possibilities? We can't explore space and fight wars at the same time, as we discovered when Vietnam drained our lunar triumph of its momentum. So which will we do?

On Saturday, George W. Bush sought to console us about Columbia and her crew. He said: "In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, 'Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.'"

I FOUND THESE words painful. Yes, those "starry hosts" are a source of inspiration and consolation. But are we looking? No, we're here below, bungling the pursuit of the dreams above our heads.

For millennia, humans have looked to the sky for what we cannot find in our hearts and minds: a sense of direction. In 1577, on the eve of Sir Francis Drake's around-the-world voyage, Queen Elizabeth I sought reassurance from her astrologer, John Dee, that a blazing star seen in the sky was not an ill omen. He reassured her that it was indeed a good sign, and Drake was allowed to sail. Let's hope the "blazing star" Columbia, like that comet, is a portent of better things to come. In fact, let's make it so.

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