Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2003 / 8 Adar I, 5763

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Consumer Reports

Space program remains a valuable investment | Within hours of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, tough questions were being asked. What caused this disaster? Who's responsible? How do we prevent it from happening again? Is space travel worth the loss of life?

There are other questions as well, some of which are naive or ill-informed. I'm talking about questions such as, should the Columbia disaster mean the end of the shuttle program and the International Space Station - and the end of manned space missions altogether? And, should we even be spending money on space when there are so many other priorities here on Earth?

A few critics argue that we can't afford to spend money on space, and we can't afford the risk. I believe they're wrong on both points. We can't afford not to.

In economic terms, NASA's budget is less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget. And, unlike so many other government programs, the overall NASA budget has actually declined over the past decade. In fact, it was slashed 40 percent during that period.

Given those constraints, consider the technologies and medical advances that the space program has developed which we now rely upon in our everyday lives: global positioning satellite systems (GPS), weather radar, ATM technology, smoke detectors, robotic surgery and implantable heart aids.

What's more, there's the work being done with protein crystal growth that is helping scientists treat patients recovering from open heart surgery and those suffering from diabetes and AIDS.

And then there are those who support spending money on space but argue that there's no need to send humans there - that the work in space should be done robotically. They argue that manned missions are sentimental, not practical. They miss the point as well.

We must not only travel in space, we must inhabit it. Space exploration is an extension of our biological imperative. Space exploration is the grandest opportunity to raise our level of knowledge and to extend the reach of mankind.

No matter how advanced our computers may become, technology alone will never possess the judgment and creativity of man.

Space is not only the ultimate emerging economic market, but it also offers us a wonderful example of international cooperation. In fact, 16 countries work together on the International Space Station. And in these complicated times, space continues to inspire all of us here on Earth.

There are big challenges. Secretary of State Colin Powell's revelations last week about Iraqi deceptions have dramatically increased the likelihood of war. We're also facing growing tensions with North Korea, as well as a stubbornly weak economy and stock market.

But none of this should ever cause us to avert our eyes from the stars. In fact, these heightened challenges make it even more important for us to continue to develop and explore space, to continue to advance mankind in defiance of those who would destroy it.

NASA has many tough questions to answer, some of them appropriate, some of them well off the mark. But NASA will answer all of them in time.

The Columbia disaster should not impede our progress or our commitment to space. Arguing against investing in space is essentially arguing against investing in our future.

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Lou Dobbs is the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." Comment by clicking here.

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