Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias As a nation, we�re still reeling from Saturday�s tragic end to our latest mission in space.

Such accidents are always tragic, but what makes the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts much more difficult to take is the realization that they had successfully traveled so far, and were only about 15 minutes away from home when everything came to such a dreadful end.

It could be some time before the U.S. launches another manned flight into space. As our nation takes time to grieve and sift through the wreckage of the Columbia for clues to its demise, it would be wise for us to use this time in a productive manner.

We must, as a nation, decide if the shuttle is the best way to send men and women into space.

We certainly can�t offer expertise on this subject. It would seem, however, in light of two shuttle losses and the fact that the fleet of spacecraft is aging, that it may be time to find a better way to send people to space and safely return them to earth.

The space shuttle is a wonder of human engineering, but we�ve learned in such difficult ways that even with its sophistication, it is a highly fragile space vehicle.

We watched in horror as Challenger exploded shortly after launch in 1986. We�re left with highly unsettling images of what may have occurred to Columbia Saturday morning as it left the comfortable vacuum of space and disintegrated upon contact with the earth�s atmosphere.

Losing 14 souls aboard two shuttles in the span of 17 years isn�t acceptable.

That doesn�t mean we must conclude that human space flight is so dangerous that it must be abandoned. Ironically, the high success rate of the shuttle made their flights so routine that the nation let them go on without paying much attention.

When we lost three astronauts in ground tests of Apollo 1, it led to improvements in that spacecraft that eventually sent men to the moon.

Let�s hope that the outcome of our latest space tragedy will be something similar. It may mean permanently grounding our shuttle fleet and designing a safer mode of transportation.

That is a small price to pay, when you consider what we�ve already lost.

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