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The latest space shuttle disaster is a grim reminder of the costs of a space exploration strategy in which genuine (and useful) science has been given a back seat.

Who needs the international space station? The question has been asked many times before, not least by critics in the US Congress who, appalled by regular increases in costs and unimpressed by the rationale behind the project, have at times over the past two decades come close to cancelling it. It is now being asked once again, with renewed intensity, in the light of last week's tragedy with the space shuttle Columbia, in which seven astronauts died.

The disaster will inevitably lead to a raft of inquiries, in particular into the technical factors that caused it. Was a dislodged protective tile (ironically the cause of much of the initial overspend and launch delays in the shuttle programme in the early 1980s) the cause of the accident? If so, could the danger have been detected earlier? Did this not happen, as some have claimed, because of cost-cutting on maintenance at the US space agency NASA? And if this was the case, who should be blamed — the engineers, their supervisors, or their political paymasters?

It would be unfortunate, however, if an excessive focus on the technical and managerial aspects of the disaster were to divert attention from the bigger question: what was Columbia actually meant to be doing? There is plenty of evidence that its so-called "scientific" mission, studying, for example, how flames burn in zero-gravity, was more of a publicity stunt than a genuine research project (given the extent to which many of the experiments could have been carried out automatically on an unmanned spacecraft).

There is also a strong case to be made that, even given the potential benefits of such research to humanity, the US$60-billion price tag attached to the international space station — whose scientific value remains equally dubious — is a classic case of technological hubris wedded to misplaced social priorities. By all rational cost-benefit measures, the space station project should never have been started; there are many better, and more productive, ways to spend money on (genuine) space science and technology.

Personal tragedy

None of this, of course, detracts from the personal tragedy of last week's accident. Furthermore — and unlike the earlier Challenger accident that took place almost exactly 17 years ago — it was no longer a purely US tragedy. The last flight of Columbia was deliberately designed to reflect an explicitly international context, one that embraced the developing as well as the developed world.

One small example of this was an experiment that involved collaboration between Palestinian biology students and an Israeli medical student. Ironically, this peace-making gesture will now become indelibly linked with the death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, whose presence on the flight had until then been a welcome distraction for a war-gripped region.

Even more poignant, perhaps, was the death of Indian-born flight engineer Kalpana Chawla. Schoolchildren across India had gathered to celebrate Chawla's involvement, some even being told which part of the sky to watch as she passed overhead on Columbia's last circuit of the earth. Her presence on the flight had become both a source and a symbol of national pride; the news magazine India Today, for example, carried a smiling portrait of Chawla on its cover with the caption "The Global Indian: Doing us Proud".

In fact, much of the internationalism of the space station, and thus of the space shuttle required to build and service it, has been politically engineered. Europe was brought in during the 1980s partly to make the project, as an international commitment, more difficult to kill in Congress. The Russian involvement was sparked more by a US desire to keep Russian space engineers engaged in a major non-military project after the fall of communism. And the choice of any non-US astronaut always has a strong, and deliberate, political symbolism.

Nevertheless, the internationalism has also been genuine. There is an important sense in which the space station does both symbolise and demonstrate the advantages of global co-operation, rather than competition. All the more reason, therefore, to raise once again the question of whether such undoubted benefits outweigh the costs involved. Particularly since costs were raised to such a high level in the first place by the need to equip spacecraft to carry humans (one of the reasons that Europe abandoned any idea of building is own manned spacecraft in the 1980s).

The way forward

As many commentators have been quick to remark, it is inconceivable that the loss of the Columbia and its crew will quench humanity's desire to explore the universe. Trying to make sense of the cosmos in which we live has been an integral element of virtually every human society. The sophisticated techniques used by modern space investigators may bear no relation to the simple observational tools of their predecessors. But their motivation remains much the same; indeed some have argued that there continues to be a strong religious streak even in modern space pioneers.

What has got in the way has been a combination of technology and political hubris — an excessive belief in humanity's ability to handle the challenges that space exploration presents. This was already evident in the 1960s, when the United States spoke of space exploration as a form of "manifest destiny", explicitly comparing it to the "pioneering spirit" of the 19th century. Last week, US politicians used similar language to talk about the need to maintain the momentum of manned space activity, one speaking of the need "to fulfil our destiny … as explorers and adventurers".

But there needs to be greater acceptance that, even stripped of such hubris, space exploration can remain a stimulating and imaginative activity, as the Hubble space telescope has amply demonstrated. Indeed, one can go further to suggest that the new priority for politicians and space engineers alike is to demonstrate that, properly handled, a desire to use space science and space technology to benefit humanity — rather than show off its technological or political prowess — is already a sufficient reason to invest the large sums of money involved.

Various developing countries are already making inroads into space exploration. This is no longer confined to the larger developing countries such as India and Brazil. The recent launch of an Algerian satellite, to be followed by others owned and developed by countries such as Nigeria and Thailand, clearly demonstrates that, intelligently and appropriately applied, space technology can offer substantial benefits. For example, the use of satellites to help improve food production, agricultural planning and disaster monitoring, can in principle ultimately lead to improved human welfare and saved lives (see 'Disaster-monitoring satellite blasts off'). If the Columbia disaster forces greater thinking along these lines within the space community, those who died will not have done so in vain.

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