It's tragic to watch the current fallout of the Columbia disaster. Certainly NASA, relevant manufacturers, and the United States Government will be asked to answer for any negligence which may have caused the loss of the shuttle and her seven crew. But I would implore anyone reading this not to conclude that the loss of the Columbia should mean the end of human spaceflight.
If anything, our commitment to space should be radically expanded. The current problems in the space program are the result of all power and authority over the development of space exploration being held in a single decision-making body. NASA, which is a marvelous organization and which certainly provided the basis for the early successes in space, is simply not equipped to move space exploration ahead. It is a government entity, unbound by market considerations, and weighed down by bureaucratic inefficiencies which make radical changes - such as the introduction of new technologies in a cost-effective manner - impossible.
The question, however, must be posed whether space exploration in itself is valuable enough to transfer to the private sector. This question is analogous to the gradual shift in the control of earthbound exploration schemes from sovereign control to chartered corporations. To answer the question, however, without respect to the analogy, no, space exploration in itself is not particularly valuable. It is another medium, another vehicle for transporting humans and their commerce, as well as seeing what's out there. I doubt any private venture at this point would find this to be a profitable scheme without, to be circular, some way to make profits from it.
Thus the analogy: space travel is valuable only insofar as it brings benefit to the people of this planet, or, more specifically, to the shareholders of any corporations which undertake it. In near space, the profits are easy to identify. The GPS system which allows boaters to find their way to fishing spots provided the "spiritual" basis for private venture such as XM Radio. Government-financed spy satellites showed private corporations that money could be made selling space-based imagery of the planet.
But none of these requires human space flight. In order for there to be profit in the human expansion into space, there must be some market for the products which can be produced exclusively or most efficiently in space, whether directly in the case of manufactured goods or indirectly in the case of products developed using experimental data acquired in space. As one discussion group poster noted in response to a question on the necessity of humans to supervise space-based experiments, "It's hard to count ants from 140 miles down."
The International Space Station is a fiasco, and so is the space shuttle. Given the radical developments in materials sciences and knowledge of the effects of space on human bodies, it is as unlikely that the shuttles would have remained in private service for twenty years as to consider that Boeing might continue to build aircraft using the processes and materials perfected during the development of, say, the now-obsolete 727. Even a plane that has had a 30-year lifespan such as the 737 is today not the same plane except in the most superficial way as the first model that flew out of Everett Field.
My plan for space would include the following broad steps. First, ground the shuttle fleet only as long as is necessary to conduct materials review of the launch equipment (fuel tank and rockets), the cooling tile system, and any particularly vulnerable areas of the shuttle's structure (particularly any structural elements on the bottom of the spacecraft). Second, apply any changes rapidly - within no more than two years - with a national commitment to redeploy the shuttle as a stopgap measure in the interests of national security and commerce (as well as prestige). Third, set a hard deadline to retire the shuttles by 2014 at the absolute latest - perhaps 2012 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of American spaceflight. Fourth, provide incentives to corporations to begin manned space flight outside the scope of NASA oversight. Fifth, turn NASA into a regulatory agency for the purposes of establishing safety guidelines; and a science agency which would fund and oversee pure science activities in space. Sixth, provide ongoing incentives for the next two or three decades to promote human exploitation of space by private corporations.
The money for such incentives could probably be found in the monies freed up by the unfortunate loss of Columbia. I would name two incentive packages: the Challenger Fund for the rapid commercialization of space exploration, and the Columbia Fund for the ongoing support of pure science exploration by government or commercial entities. A third package, the Apollo Fund - deriving its name from America's other fatal space mission, Apollo I - would subsidize development of safety mechanisms and alternative propulsion schemes for space exploration.
Our planet is small. Our resources are limited. Only a hundred miles above our heads is the gateway to, literally, a universe of options. There are planets packed with natural resources and room for human habitation. There are asteroids which at once pose a direct threat to our planet and could be a staggeringly rich source of raw materials for the improvement of human civilization. And, as always in a new realm, there is a near infinite space which will provide further insights into this incredible and complex universe in which we are such small but special players.
Now is not the time to draw back from our commitment to space. If anything, we should conclude that the loss of Columbia means that we have reached the limits - after 40 years of remarkable successes - of government monopoly over rich space exploration.
I suspect that the crew of Columbia and their families would agree. After all, they were drawn to the space program because of the opportunity to do something revolutionary, brave, and necessary for our world, not because they wanted to get rich. They would - I hope - support any initiative which would have given them more opportunity to do the work they loved. If we could demonstrate that private control of the space program would, in fact, radically expand that space program - in the same way that private corporations increased and improved the reach of the automobile, the airplane, telecommunications networks, and the Internet - I believe that those astronauts and the astronauts who remain would support us.
Don't give up on space. It is not only our future, but also our present. Make it better, do not declare it dead with those men and women who have died in their ongoing quest to expand the reach and the value of our lives.