The shuttle Columbia is gone, taking seven astronauts with it, among them an Indian.
What’s the importance of these three points?
According to me, and in reverse order:
Kalpana Chawla died in the line of duty. What happened to her is what every pioneer, including all astronauts, fear will happen to them. What is most laudable about Ms.Chawla is not that she was the first Indian woman in space, but that she did her job, knowing that it could cost her her life. As a human being, that is a far bigger achievement than just being a nominal representative of an archaic concept of national boundaries, and if I grieve over her loss, it is because there are so few humans who had the guts to do what she did.
The seven astronauts who died in all probability knew what was coming long before it actually happened, but could do nothing about it but take a chance at returning. They had no facilities to attempt a repair, since they were not equipped to do a spacewalk, and the shuttle did not have a “lifeboat” capsule that would have been rigid enough to withstand the stresses of re-entry. That makes it all the more horrible – the fact that room for commercial equipment is more important than additional safety equipment for the crew. To me, this defines the mindset of the people who run such commercial endeavours.
Another shuttle is gone, and the whole fleet is now under scrutiny. The last time a shuttle was lost, it effectively grounded the entire fleet for almost three years, and it would have remained so had pressures from certain corners to “justify” the expense of creating and maintaining the shuttle fleet not forced things along.
What stands to question is – why is no new space travel technology being developed? In effect, the world *still* uses the same technology as it did almost half a decade ago! The “booster” drive the shuttles use is very similar to the Saturn V technology that catapulted the Apollo missions into space in the 60s.
I do not expect the sudden appearance of fiction-like “anti-gravity” technologies, but there simply has to be a more efficient and economical way to create the kind of push it takes to get into space and (more importantly) to get back home.
The American administration is now talking about “more money for NASA”, but to what end? If we are still using the technologies of the 60s to travel to space, then where has all that research money gone?
It sure hasn’t gone into better and more foolproof safety devices that would ensure that tragedies like this don’t happen.