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By Jack Ganssle

Columbia

Published 2/06/2003

I travel to outer space. Often.

My 8 inch Celestron transports me to the birthplace of stars in Orion's belt, to the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and to galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away.

No human has been to these places. Surely eons will pass before our descendants set foot on many of these spots. But my little telescope is a vehicle that lets me explore the remotest places on any clear night.

I invite friends and passers-by to peer through the eyepiece. Most are disappointed. The splendor of the Andromeda galaxy is but a smudge of light. M57, the Ring Nebula, looks like a barely-discernable donut on the best of nights. and only after much practice with the instrument.

Possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen is Orion's Nebula on a cold clear winter's night (see photo). Yet through the scope it's merely a black and white swirl. It's glory is only revealed in a color photo obtained by an hour of downloading photons. Yet as I stare at the poorly-defined blob my mind explodes with thoughts of this stellar nursery a thousand light years away, whose prosaic hydrogen gasses are coalescing into new stars and solar systems.

Astronomy is a voyage in one's mind. The Ring Nebula's vague donut shape is a planetary nebula, ejecta from a star much like ours but now in its death throes. Years of reading Sky and Telescope (http://skyandtelescope.com/) and stacks of books paints a blistering image in my mind of what this amazing system really looks like. The smudge in the eyepiece is the Braille encoding of the reality. The amateur astronomer's imagination transforms the raw photons to a thing of beauty and an object of wonder.

In the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy a Baltimore radio program targeted at young folks chortled at the futility of space exploration. DJ's whose view of the cosmos seems limited to the brake lights on the car ahead of them suggested we "scuttle shuttle", complaining they perceive no tangible benefits from NASA's billions. Pleased with that clever turn of phrase one ranted about "boring" launches and missions.

They're not alone. Much of the US is bored with the space program. I remember watching Apollo 17 blasting off - on an inset on the TV. Three quarters of the screen was devoted to a football game. Why is it ennui rapidly sets in unless we're entertained with grizzly scenes of murder and mayhem?

So today Columbia, which has spent 20 mostly unheralded years routinely traveling to space, now captures our attention. Explosions and debris raining from the sky rivals a Bruce Willis flick for drama and special effects. Space is momentarily interesting again.

Soon pundits will question the wisdom of manned space flight, their grave voices lending profundity to a jaded zeitgeist. And they are right: a wise electorate evaluates all decisions on a continuous basis. Though an enthusiastic space advocate, I too question the wisdom of a $100 billion space station whose scientific benefits remain dubious. And Shuttle never delivered its promise of cheap access to space; we taxpayers continue to fund an obsolete and overpriced delivery truck.

Our Federal budget is burdened with weary obligations, a few noble, many ill-advised, and some downright obscene. 0.2% goes to manned space exploration. No doubt some or much of that is misspent. But just as Portugal's Prince Henry sent mission after failed mission on his quest to find an ocean route to the orient, we as a people must be willing to take on grand though problem-plagued ventures. We need Shuttle, despite its flaws, and we need a national effort to create an improved version.

NASA is faulted of late for not having daring enough missions, for not undertaking ventures that excite us. Wrong! Dropping a rover on Mars is breathtaking. A proposed mission to Europa blows my mind. And any launch that puts people into space, even just to low Earth orbit, is, well, if NASA invited me to go aboard a shuttle mission tomorrow I'd be packing my bags and not writing this.

NASA isn't delivering dull missions. We lack imagination.

The US remains the world's only superpower. Let's chose not to measure that solely in tanks, planes and nukes. A great superpower should be based on the triad of power, compassion, and a commitment to explore the unknown. For a lousy 0.2% of the budget we can let our imaginations run wild, dream big dreams, and make some of them come true.