Editorial: Funding needed for space safety

Early Saturday morning the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the southern United States upon re-entering the atmosphere. All seven astronauts of the STS-107 mission were instantly killed. Eerily close to the anniversary of the January 1986 Challenger explosion, Americans are coming together to remember and honor the brave heroes of the sky. However, in the midst of the memorials and salutes, people are beginning to question the validity of the space program, specifically NASA’s funding and safety measures — and rightly so.

The Columbia was completed in 1981 and was the first shuttle of its kind launched into outer space. Since then, 144 shuttles have explored the skies on research and exploration missions. Following the 1986 Challenger explosion just minutes after its launch, NASA’s funding increased under pressure to ensure future safety in space exploration.

A decade later, the watchful eyes of America pointed elsewhere while funding for the space program began its steady decline. With the increasing cost of advancing technology, NASA faced serious economic problems.

For example, over-spending in the space station program called for the elimination of important habitat areas on shuttles, which ultimately reduced the number of people able to work in the unit.

In recent years more and more reduction in spending allocations across the board has left NASA no choice but to make cuts where deemed best. There is no doubt that all measures taken by NASA administrations placed the safety of the astronauts as top priority, but they can only do so much with what little they have. Columbia was over 20 years old, yet was scheduled to fly in space for two more decades. The shuttle was revamped a little over a year and a half ago to bring the vehicle up to present standards, but much of the equipment dates back to the late ’70s.

There has been discussion among those in the aeronautical community about reverting to a smaller, reusable space plane that would be used to take astronauts back and forth in space. However, no new information or timeline on such plans have been disclosed, and with the cancellation of all scheduled space flights, many wonder what path NASA will take.

There is no question that the United States must continue to explore the unknown territories beyond the realms of Earth, not only to advance science and medical technology, but for all those who gave their lives in the pursuit of bettering the world. President Bush’s budget calls for only a 3 percent increase in the space program funding, hardly enough to keep up with today’s rapidly changing technology. If a safer and smaller space vehicle is in NASA’s future, the government must ensure that the agency has the financial means to safely transport the next generation of space travelers to the stars and back. America owes its heroes that much and more.