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THE NEED TO KNOW

Such has been NASA's run of misfortune this year that the fantastic story of space-walking astronauts capturing and repairing a giant orbiting telescope seems like not very much at all.

After all, they crashed the Mars Climate Orbiter in September didn't they? And they don't know what on Earth happened to the Mars Polar Lander that just this month vanished into thin air -- or whatever it is that things vanish into on Mars -- right? So what if they fix some finicky telescope?

What we have here is a failure to evaluate. It has, indeed, been a dreadful year for American space exploration. The loss of the two Mars missions represents a significant and expensive failure.

But as last week's hopeful effort to fix the Hubble Space Telescope showed, NASA knows how to do this work. Despite some high-profile disasters, such as the Apollo 1 training capsule fire and the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, NASA has run up a remarkable 40-year record of safe and valuable space exploration.

Some critics take no notice of that record in jumping on the agency's recent misfortunes. Often these are the same people who doubt the value of space exploration altogether -- those who say that with all the problems on our own planet, we should be spending that money here. The Mars debacles are simply a convenient way to further their argument.

But it's a worm's-eye view of human history. We are explorers both by nature and by necessity. Like the mountain-climber, we want to conquer space because it is there. We thrive on challenge.

More than that, though, we benefit from space exploration. We learn about ourselves, our planet and our place in it. Advances in science and medicine can be directly credited to NASA's work.

To be sure, NASA needs to rethink the "faster, cheaper, better" standard it has adopted in this decade. As an inevitable byproduct of its drive to cut costs, some say, errors have become all the more likely. Given the reason for the September crash -- a failure to reconcile metric and English measurements -- that seems like a plausible criticism. Some hard-nosed questions need to be asked.

But give up space exploration? You might as well demand that lions stop hunting or ask fires not to burn. It can't happen.

Sometimes when you get thrown from the horse, you really shouldn't get back on. Not this time. Like the explorers of the past, our policy can be nothing other than to learn from our failures and then proceed. We still need to get to Mars.

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