It usually takes a tragedy for reality to puncture perception. In the case of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the perception was that manned space flight had become so routine as to be largely risk free.
President Bush, mindful of what the US public wanted to hear at such a moment, pledged that space exploration would go on. But the recent history of NASA has been characterised by slashed budgets, fudge and drift.
NASA has vigorously denied that the safety of any mission was compromised by lack of money. But the picture that has emerged since last weekend is of an organisation that has become somewhat moribund since its glory years, suffering from benign neglect by its political paymasters and internal indecision over priorities.
How NASA must look on with envy at the latitude, dollars and heavyweight political backing given to the US missile defence programme. For all his soothing words about NASA’s ’cause of discovery’, a missile shield system is the technological prize Bush really wants to hand the American people before he leaves office.
Even the modest ambitions of the so-called Son of Star Wars programme backed by Bush represent a massive technical challenge that will cost taxpayers many billions of dollars. The problem is, many doubt that it will ever work, even in its limited role as a defence against small attacks from ‘rogue states.’
And Bush has been careful not to dispel the impression that the current programme is a stepping stone towards a much bigger prize – a system that can keep the US and its allies safe from anything an enemy can throw against them.
Which brings us back to perception and reality. Manned space flight will never take place without danger. Nothing can guarantee our safety against a determined missile attack. That’s life.