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From The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2003, p. A16

 

SPACE AND CIVILIZATION

 

By WILLIAM E. BURROWS

 

The remains of the orbiter Columbia and its crew bear testimony to a

larger and more insidious problem than a tragic accident caused by mechanical failure. The real problem is not technological. It is political.

 

Rockets and the spacecraft they heave into orbit around Earth are inherently dangerous devices. A rocket engine that turns combustible substances like liquid hydrogen and oxygen or solid fuel into fire is undergoing a controlled explosion that can get out of control very quickly. Challenger, many of its

unmanned predecessors, and a number of Soviet launchers -- one of which blew up on the launch pad in October 1960, burning 92 people beyond recognition -- have already shown that.

 

Rocketry's safety record has improved dramatically over the years and

continues to do so. But it will always carry danger. The question to ask is whether the risk of traveling to space is worth the benefit. The answer is an unequivocal yes, but not only for the reasons that are usually touted by the

space community: the need to explore, the scientific return, and the possibility of commercial profit. The most compelling reason, a very long-term one, is the necessity of using space to protect Earth and guarantee the survival of humanity.

 

In "Encounter With Tiber," a 1996 novel by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and

John Barnes, the commander of a large interstellar space cruiser justifies its immense journey by warning its crew: "There's not a place in the universe that's safe forever; the universe is telling us, 'Spread out, or wait around and

die.'" Indeed, this is an abidingly unsafe neighborhood. It is a cosmic shooting gallery in which one horrendous asteroid or comet impact roughly 251 million

   years ago virtually brought the dinosaurs into existence by killing off their competitors, and another, which struck about 186 million years later, is thought to have finished them off.

 

There are so many large asteroids that cross Earth's path with potentially catastrophic consequences that an international Spaceguard program has been started so astronomers can catalogue them. This would allow one that is on  a collision course to be deflected or destroyed. No astronomer doubts that several are headed our way.

 

This is not to say the sky is falling. But it is to say that it is prudent to spread out. For the first time in history, we have the wherewithal to do so thanks to access to space. In order to ensure our survival, it is imperative that we move beyond the short-term "fight or flee" mentality and think about using

space to protect Earth and civilization for the very long term.

 

To that end, some of us have started an Alliance to Rescue Civilization, or ARC, that would copy civilization's essential elements -- its cultural, scientific, historical, political and biological components -- the way a computer's hard-drive is backed up, and for the same reason: to protect against a crash. The idea is to have a continuously updated archive stored both on Earth and in a large settlement on the Moon that would be self-sustaining.

 

Planetary defense, in its various forms, is so important it ought to constitute the overarching focus of a space program that is now so unfocused it is in shambles. A solid defense requires constant and relatively easy access to space. And that, in turn, depends on single- or two-stage-to-orbit, reusable

spacecraft that can carry people and cargo at frequent intervals and be serviced like airliners.

 

In other words, we need a second generation shuttle. What we have, however, is a grossly diminished fleet of aged and precariously capable spacecraft that are not conceptually much different from the Roman candles that carried the  Apollo astronauts. The technology to change that is at hand. It is foresight and the will to do so that are lacking.

 

 

 

 

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