The Times – Heavens, what a waste of space, by Mark Henderson<br/> 20 years after Challenger, Nasa still hasn’t learnt its lesson

The disaster should have been a turning point for humanity’s exploration of the heavens. Nasa, however, was not for turning. The culture of corner-cutting and complacency that doomed Challenger lived on, to be blamed again for the loss of Columbia three years ago. A still more important lesson was also ignored. The tragedy should have been taken as a warning that technology has yet to provide a safe way of reaching for the sky, and prompted a searching re-evaluation of the rationale for human spaceflight. But encouraged perhaps by Ronald Reagan’s inimitably moving eulogy to the lost crew, Nasa never countenanced this debate. It took it as a given that the shuttle programme must go on, so as not to betray the memory of the brave seven who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”….

The waste is all the more criminal when set against what might have been. By refusing to cut its losses on the shuttle when Challenger blew up, Nasa diverted vast resources away from a field in which it truly excels. Since going to the Moon, human beings have done nothing of scientific consequence in space: robots are the great space explorers now. Unmanned probes can be dispatched farther and faster than astronauts, and no one dies when they fail. From Voyager and Viking to the Mars rovers and Stardust, which returned triumphantly a fortnight ago after catching pieces of a comet’s tail, Nasa’s robots have transformed our knowledge of the solar system. The Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes have looked out further still, revealing secrets of the wider cosmos. Robots have made almost every significant discovery of the space age. It is tantalising to consider how much more they could have learnt with even half the funds squandered on the shuttle

Robots can also get you beer! But, never mind that.