Columbia Distaster

Yesterday's explosion of the Columbia space shuttle was the largest news event since 9/11. There are two threads on Slashdot, one, two, and Kottke compiled a list of links.

It's certainly tragic, especially for Israel. But it gives us a deeper appreciation for how extraordinarily difficult and complicated space travel is for our civilization.

This accident calls into question the utility of our space program. Are the experiments being done on space shuttle missions and the international space station worth the billions of dollars that are required to fund them, and the jeopardy in which it places the astronauts? On the Columbia's last mission, it was testing the way proteins form differently in plants grown in zero gravity than on Earth. The only application I can see in this kind of experiment is for a future mission to Mars. Since a trip to Mars would take several years, the only feasible way to feed the astronauts is to have a complete ecosystem with the space craft.

Certainly the exploration of outer space is a triumph of humanity. But is exploration worthwhile for it's own sake? Space travel is different than exploration in Renaissance Europe. Columbus, for example, thought he was finding a water route to India. There was a clear potential economic benefit to his voyage. Without such a prospect, he almost certainly would not have received funding. Yet what is our benefit from landing on the moon, or eventually sending people to Mars?

I'm playing the devil's advocate, since I do think we should continue to further our missions in space. It's the same reason why the government funds theoretical scientific research. Even though we don't know the immediate utility of our knowledge, there is always some use for it in the future.

A note on the media coverage:
I woke up at 9:30 Saturday morning. As usual when I wake up, I turned on NPR and checked my e-mail. NPR was already doing a special broadcast, reporting that ground control had lost contact with the shuttle and Texans had witnessed it breaking apart. So I looked for more information on the Web. Google News was the first place I checked, but they were behind the times. Their top stories were about Bush and Iraq. Only down in the Tech section did they have links to local Texas news about the Shuttle. CNN, however, had already rearranged their page, prominently featuring the breaking story. In the span of 20 minutes, major news networks had already acquired footage of the breakup. Walter Cronkite, who covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, said it took the networks a few hours to put together some decent footage.

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