02/01/2013 08:40 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Finding Our Way Out of the Confusion: The 10-year Anniversary of the Columbia Disaster

Feb. 1, 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which broke apart during reentry over the skies of Texas. This date also roughly coincides with the two other disasters that have shaped both NASA itself and public perception of the agency. The Apollo 1 fire occurred on Jan. 27, 1967, and was the first major tragedy for the fledgling space agency. The fire made it clear, in very stark terms, that the exploration of space is not simply a competition and a matter for parades, but a deadly serious business. Almost 20 years later, on Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The Challenger accident stifled any hopes of a return to the heady days of the 1960s and presaged a more considered and conservative future for NASA.

What, then, did the Columbia disaster mean? The Space Shuttle was an enormously ambitious and technologically advanced vehicle. Considering that it was 13 years in development and flew for 30 years, it was also the embodiment of NASA in the public consciousness. The Shuttle program formally commenced in 1972 -- the same year as the last Apollo mission landed humans on the Moon.

Through its early history, NASA was defined in large measure by President Kennedy's bold challenge "of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." The problem with thinking about NASA in those terms is that once a person has landed on the Moon and been returned safely to Earth, the agency has fulfilled its mission and effectively put itself out of a job. Even in the years leading up to the final Moon landing, space policy thinkers started trying to figure out what was next for NASA. What would an agency built to land a person on the Moon do afterward? The Space Shuttle was their answer to this question.

Although it was an incredibly advanced and capable vehicle, the Shuttle did not live up to its promise. The Challenger accident in 1986 made the point that the Shuttle was not going to be the instrument that would recreate the excitement, enthusiasm, boldness, and optimism the nation remembered from the height of the Space Race. In the years following the loss of Challenger, it became apparent that to some extent the Shuttle was the main emblem of NASA in the public eye. Some observers even contended that flying the Shuttle for its own sake became NASA's raison d'être. Operating the Shuttle turned out to be poor way of conceptualizing the point of a space program -- akin to thinking of the hardware used for Apollo as being the same as the goal of sending people to and from the Moon.

We faced an existential question about the meaning and purpose of a space program at the end of Apollo and tried to answer with the Shuttle. The Columbia disaster demonstrated that the Space Shuttle was not the answer to this question.

Tied up in all this are questions of organizational culture. It is instructive to note that the explosion of Challenger is often referred to as an "accident," while the breakup of Columbia on reentry is usually described as a "disaster." With Challenger, the nation discovered a host of unforeseen cultural and management problems at NASA. When the Columbia disaster occurred, the nation discovered that these problems had not been properly addressed in the intervening decades. The report dealing with the causes of the Columbia disaster notes in a supplemental recommendation that NASA was very good at addressing technical issues but was unwilling or unable to critically examine and change its own culture. Without fundamental changes in the way that NASA thought and operated, it seemed likely that disasters of this sort would continue in future. The task of changing NASA's organizational culture will continue to be quite difficult without a clear consensus on the agency's central purpose.

Ten years after the Columbia disaster, as the 113th Congress begins work this year on a new NASA Authorization bill that will set much of NASA's direction, the nation still has not come to a solid conclusion about why we have a space program, what we intend it to do and what purpose it serves. The policy debate about the appropriate agenda for a space program typically focuses on choosing destinations or picking technologies, which have historically proven to be inadequate rationales for existence. Certainly, there are those who are vocal advocates of the benefits in technology, education, science and international relations that a healthy space program can yield. But these are outcomes, not purposes. By way of analogy, there may be a tax credit for dependent children, but that can hardly be considered adequate justification for bringing a child into the world.

In December 2012, the Space Foundation released a report, "PIONEERING: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space", which was an effort to help move the conversation forward. The report calls for an intellectual shift in perspective that would subsequently allow the United States, its political establishment and NASA to figure out what the space program is for and what it should be doing.

Without going into great detail, the proposition is this: If space can provide something useful or valuable to some group, then that group should be willing to support that activity on its own. The purpose of a space program is to identify those opportunities, develop the means to make use of those opportunities, and then transition those now-developed capabilities to those who will make use of them. This is something that has already been demonstrated with communications satellites, GPS and remote-sensing weather satellites.

The report, for its purposes, gives the following definition:

Pioneering: 1) being among those who first enter a region, in order to open it for use and development by others; 2) being one of a group that builds and prepares infrastructure precursors, in advance of others.

While the pioneering doctrine does not assign a priority to a specific destination or technology, it does contain a way for planners and analysts to discuss alternatives and compare them. There will be some cases in which we, as a nation, wish to do something in space that does not fall directly within NASA's purview. In those cases, it may be worthwhile to continue to do those things, but they would fall into the broader national space enterprise.

This approach may not be the final answer or conclusion to the chapter of deliberation opened by the Columbia disaster 10 years ago, but the Space Foundation believes it will be a useful tool in helping us, as a nation, find our way out of the confusion.