What is it about the space program, anyway? When the Mars Rover began sending pictures to Earth a while ago, the NASA Web site received more than a billion hits within a couple of days. When President Bush wanted to find a national goal that would transcend everyday concerns, he chose returning to the moon. Why, in a time of war and terrorism, are our spirits lifted because a small machine millions of miles away sends back some photographs, or when our political leaders remind us of larger goals?
You won't find much attention to this intriguing question in Comm Check. What you will find instead is a gripping, detailed account of what happens when you try to translate the glowing vision of space exploration into the nuts and bolts of real-world accomplishment. The authors, both veteran reporters on the NASA beat, have taken as their subject the tragic events of Feb. 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over the southwestern United States. Starting with a short description of the horrified silence that fell on the control room in Houston when instruments lost track of the craft, the authors walk us through pre-launch preparations 16 days earlier, the disaster itself and the investigation that followed.
The story is a complicated one, involving a chain of technical and bureaucratic errors. During the launch, some insulating foam came off the external fuel tank and crashed into the leading edge of the craft's wing, opening a hole about a foot wide. The damage couldn't be seen from the spacecraft and wasn't picked up by ground cameras during launch. Higher-level executives ignored warnings from engineers and vetoed requests that damage be assessed by photographs from highly classified military surveillance satellites, although later analysis showed that even if the damage had been documented, nothing could have been done to save the astronauts once they were in orbit.
The authors' account is highly readable and largely free of technical jargon. When they introduce a new player, they always give a thumbnail sketch of the person's background to give you a sense of who he or she is. They also include a very useful appendix of acronyms to help the reader deal with NASA-speak, though sometimes the details get a bit overpowering. Closet techno-geeks like me, for example, will be absolutely mesmerized by the second-by-second account of what happened to Columbia's left wing as it re-entered the atmosphere, but the eyes of the general reader may well glaze over. Interspersed with the details are some fascinating bits of information. When President Bush was told about the disaster, for example, his first words were "Where are the families?" -- a reply I took to be a significant insight into the man's value system. Ultimately, the authors give us as complete and readable an account of the Columbia disaster and the inside workings of NASA as we are likely to get.
But in the end, the significance of this book, particularly at this moment, derives from what it has to say about the debate going on in the space program -- the questions of whether we should be sending humans into space at all. As the Columbia disaster shows, this is both risky and expensive. Wouldn't it be better, some argue, to send out (relatively) cheap robots rather than fragile humans to explore the solar system?
I suppose this argument would make sense if the only goal of the space program were to gather data on the planets. But sometimes, when I'm in a contemplative mood, I think about humanity's move away from our home planet in a different way. I wonder what history books will say about our generation 500 years from now. In that perspective, the great conflagrations of the 20th century -- even World War II -- will mean no more than the War of the Spanish Succession does to us today. The War on Terror, whether it turns out to be the start of a clash of civilizations or just the dying gasp of a fundamentalist ideology unable to move into the 21st century, will mean no more than the Crusades. In the end, I think, we will be remembered primarily for our many scientific achievements -- splitting the atom, decoding the genome. But most of all, they will say about us, "Yes, they were the first people to walk on the moon."
And I want to tell you, my friends, that there are a lot worse things to be remembered for.
Reviewed by James Trefil
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.