Audio: Jeffrey Hoffman, "Exploring Space With Humans And Robots" (excerpt). WGBH Forum Network

Human space exploration was a given in the U.S. thirty years ago. At that time, it was almost routine for Americans to switch on their television sets and observe another Space Shuttle lift off. When it was the Challenger’s turn to launch, the only unusual element was that an elementary school teacher was part of the crew.

By then, Shuttle missions at NASA were eight years into a rich new era of space flight. Not only had America won the space race, we were conducting science experiments high above the Earth and giving civilians the opportunity to take the ride of a lifetime.

But the day we tuned in to see the teacher rocket into space, instead we saw an explosion.  The white arc of exhaust from Challenger’s rockets ended abruptly in the sky. Cameras caught the confused, then horrified expressions on the faces staring up from Cape Canaveral. NASA had a big problem.

“Early in the history of the Shuttle,” former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman declared, “there were people at NASA who should have known better, who tried to convince people that…flying in space was no more dangerous or difficult than getting into a 747 and flying to Europe.”

The tragedy of the Challenger, and the loss of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher enrolled in Ronald Reagan’s Teacher in Space project, changed everything about the space program. Although more shuttles went up in the coming years, public confidence in NASA dwindled, and the shuttles became a fleet of delivery trucks hauling crews and supplies high into the great construction project in the sky: the International Space Station. The fleet was finally retired for good in 2011.

Hoffman joined the Space Shuttle mission at its inception in 1978. Decades later, in a talk at the Museum of Science, he reminisced about the shuttle program as it faced its sunset. He said NASA rode the euphoria of JFK’s challenge to win the space race as long as it could, but malaise and distrust hampered the organization after the Challenger tragedy. The public became risk-averse and so Congress stepped back. Interest remained low even as the new space station grew. The same year the Shuttle fleet retired, the lights went on in the space station, with fifteen modules humming, and another five still planned through 2017. But the program is hardly thriving. What NASA needs now, Hoffman said, is to get back out there exploring, and that’s going to take a lot of investment.

“A larger and larger percentage of NASA’s budget is going to have to be devoted to exploration, or it’s not going to happen,” Hoffman predicted. Shifting his gaze to the future, he explained how robotics and new innovations are helping us learn about the surface of Mars. Meanwhile, the proximity of the moon will help us develop extraterrestrial habitation.

The interest in getting humans to Mars has a lot to do with its history. The surface of Mars suggests it was once covered in water. “Follow the water, because every place on the earth where we have found water, we have found life,” Hoffman said, adding that right now we only have one system of biology to study. Still, it’s going to be awhile before anyone catches up to science fiction and starts growing potatoes in a hothouse up there.

Meanwhile, travel to the moon and back is within our reach, and NASA is encouraging the private sector to get involved. The list of private space flight companies numbers in the hundreds and NASA, “is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew space transportation capabilities,” according to NASA 360, a vodcast produced by the organization.

As promising as that sounds, the success of a space exploration program funded by public or private money is only as good as it is useful.  If people won’t demand a chance to climb aboard, none of the development matters. The desire to know what’s out there will have to overcome our aversion to risk.

Another former astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, boldly climbed up the steps and took a seat in the shuttle Endeavor. Hers was the mission immediately after the Challenger explosion. Nothing, she said, was going to keep her from getting the chance to go in to space. There is no room for timidity, she insisted, and she encouraged risky behavior.

“It’s ok if to want to go,” Jemison told a crowd at the JFK Library. “You don’t get the same experience sending a robot to Hawaii. The pictures are not the same.” She then quoted the Star Trek character, Q: “…..out here you can learn wondrous things, but it’s not for the faint of heart. If you can’t take a little bloody nose, you need to go back home and hide under your bed.”

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