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On a warm, beautiful morning in January 2003, the space shuttle mission STS 107 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center. Two weeks later, it proved to be the beginning of the last mission of the space shuttle Columbia.
A myriad of things can and often do go wrong leading up to every launch, but all systems checked out fully operational and the weather was perfect for this launch. It was the only mission during my tenure as NASA administrator that wasn’t postponed due to weather conditions or a systems failure. Extreme diligence, attention to safety details and a flawless operational mission were insufficient to save the orbiter and crew on reentry. It wasn’t due to a weather risk; it happened because of one of the many factors on every flight that can result in failure. On previous shuttle flights we had repetitively discounted the risk of a recurring pattern; on this mission we lost seven remarkable people. In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy, we openly investigated the cause, fixed it and resolved to get back to the exploration quest to which they dedicated their lives.
Last Wednesday, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with a NASA crew aboard the Dragon spacecraft was postponed due to inclement weather conditions. Like so many scrubbed flights before, this was the right call; the next important chapter in space exploration was delayed a few days, but the safety protocols were faithfully followed. And, on Saturday afternoon, it finally took flight.
Falcon 9’s launch was the high-risk equivalent of a controlled explosion — just as it was for the Shuttle, Apollo, Gemini and Mercury space flights before it. This new rocket and spacecraft include significantly enhanced safety features, greater operational efficiency and better reliability. But we’re still in the early chapters of space exploration, discovering new limitations, knowing this is hazardous and high-risk. Humans take these risks to explore because we’re driven by our curiosity, a sense of opportunity and a desire to expand humanity’s reach. These same motivations have inspired every venture to explore the unknown since the dawn of humankind.
The Falcon 9 flight opens a new chapter of space exploration, realizing a vision that emerged soon after the Columbia tragedy. In early 2004, with the crew’s memory and sacrifice still fresh in mind, President Bush laid out a strategy to renew our dedication to explore. It called for development of a new spacecraft to expand our reach beyond where we’d been, complete assembly of the International Space Station and recruit innovators to apply new technologies and ways to explore. It served to guide NASA to the opportunity for new destinations and discoveries, and turned to commercial enterprise to sustain previous accomplishments by assuming the challenge to resupply and fly crews to the space station.
The Obama administration modified the strategy, slowing NASA’s spacecraft development but accelerating the commercialization plan to develop new systems to competitively sustain the space station. This was the objective SpaceX has successfully pursued for the past few years, sending cargo and supplies to the space station — the biggest, most advanced laboratory in space the world has ever conceived. Over its 20 years of operations, nations from across the globe have collaborated to support this platform dedicated to science and discovery. This engineering achievement, operating more than 230 miles above Earth’s surface, has been home to humans from 18 countries on extended missions.
The space shuttle returned to flight, completed the space station assembly and the program was retired in 2011. Thereafter, the world has relied on Russia exclusively to sustain the space station with its Soyuz rocket and spacecraft, a compact transport system used for decades to meet minimal crew and cargo needs at $80 million a seat.
The Dragon spacecraft is the first wholly designed and developed commercial vehicle to deliver astronauts into space by a private company. That opens a new opportunity not only to expand access to the space station for future NASA crews but inspires other entrepreneurial companies to expand opportunities for anyone on Earth to venture there. Meantime, the NASA Space Launch System development continues with the objective of flying astronauts beyond where we have been before. The upcoming Artemis missions back to the Moon will be the next step.
This strategy repeats the pattern that yielded the development of the commercial airline industry. Decades after the first flying machine carried a human across the dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and several government-sponsored designs to build on that new technology to map terrain, deliver mail, transport cargo and countless other capabilities for military aircraft, a commercial aviation industry emerged to capitalize on baseline designs and make passenger air travel possible to nearly anywhere on the globe.
Such ventures to expand public access often have been at the root of every exploration. While most begin with public objectives as the motivation for ambitious government programs — to provide for the common defense, develop new land, expand communications, electric power or water access — rapid developments emerge after the opportunity is opened to commercial enterprises. Along that route, innovators emerge to do what makes businesses successful — improve performance, lower cost, yield production and delivery efficiencies and make access available to more people. That pattern continues with Falcon 9’s launch with two humans aboard.
Why do this in the midst of a worldwide pandemic? There are two reasons, the first pragmatic and the second more strategic.
The first reality is that crew exchange on the space station occurs roughly every six months, to minimize human exposure to microgravity; it’s a health-and-safety consideration, not an operational luxury, to swap out the crew at these intervals. Some people have lived in space for longer periods, but we’re still working to understand the strains on human physiology. Over the last two decades, we’ve learned how to extend human capacity to function and remediate issues for longer duration, but we’re in the early stages. Understanding the effects of long-duration space flight is essential to venture for extended periods and to go beyond where we’ve been.
Instead of flying the Falcon 9, we could continue to pay Russia to fly crews to the station, but the risk of a rocket launch is the same from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Until we figure out a new method to leave this planet, conventional chemical propulsion rockets remain risky from anywhere around the globe. We can’t just bring home the current residents of the International Space Station and turn out the lights, lest we risk losing the one-of-a-kind laboratory that took decades to assemble; people must be there to maintain operations.
Perhaps the most unique, serious new risk of launch during the pandemic was the congregation of curiosity seekers around the extended perimeter of the launch site. The expansive Kennedy Space Center complex is closed to the public, but some felt compelled to watch even from a considerable distance, despite the potential risks from COVID-19.
The second reason to continue our exploration in the midst of today’s public health challenge is the long view: Even with multinational wars raging, recessions slowing the global economy and several regional epidemics arising, each generation of the last six decades has continued the quest to explore space and to advance humankind. Every explorer has stood on the shoulders of giants who preceded; succeeding generations earn the chance to improve on past experiences, making the next opportunity that much more attainable — and to be giants themselves. That’s our nature.
So this is but one more significant milestone in a journey compelled by human instinct, an instinct which has successfully gotten us out of living in caves.
Sean O’Keefe is a professor and the Howard & Louise Phanstiel chair in Strategic Management & Leadership at the Syracuse University Maxwell School. He served as NASA administrator in the George W. Bush administration.