I am not the kind of person to persistently claim that national tragedies affect me personally. When Sept. 11 rolled around, I had an initial sense of disbelief followed by the realization that whatever changes were coming in the U.S. would run very deep. But it didn’t compare at all to waking up on Saturday morning and hearing that the space shuttle had become a cloud of metal particles descending slowly over Texas and Louisiana.

Columbia is different for me. It’s personal. I have mild, unilateral cerebral palsy. I’m not in a wheelchair. Most people don’t even notice it’s there. After I’ve known someone for a year or two they’ll usually look at me funny one day and ask me why I’m limping, whether I’ve hurt myself.

For my trouble I was ostracized, of course. I went through clinical depression in fourth grade. I didn’t make any real friends until high school. There was always the desire to make up for being different by being exceptional. In four years, I won thirteen science fairs. I didn’t feel any better.

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a child, and I will always remember a passage, which I took to describe myself: “The world was to me a secret, which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.”

My heroes during that time were odd ones: Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler, the founders of nanotechnology; Robert Ballard, the first explorer of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; and I was fascinated, absolutely enthralled, by NASA.

It’s rare that one finds anything poetic in a newspaper, but the L.A. Times contained a passage on Sunday that pinned down my feelings pretty well. Robert Lee Hotz described NASA, saying, “No other agency so embodies America’s romance with exploration, its abiding faith in science and technology, or the failure to learn from its mistakes.”

Corporations, politicians and public interest all have something to say about how scientists ply their trade. There is a complex and powerful interplay between public, media, government, industry and science. And as I learned about it, I learned about the other side of NASA – the administrative end, where dollars and cents arbitrate discovery.

The shuttle was designed in the late 1970s. It was the country’s long-anticipated reusable spacecraft, and it resulted from two conflicting visions. NASA and the Air Force planned on sharing the program, with Air Force shuttles launching from the West Coast and NASA shuttles from the East Coast. NASA was interested in science missions, the Air Force in spy missions – launching from the West Coast puts you in an orbit over the Soviet Union.

The winning design for the shuttle was a compromise between the two visions, and as a result it couldn’t accomplish much of either. The shuttle is too bulky to reach the high orbits most satellites require, and too temperamental to be launched regularly, cheaply or easily.

In terms of cost overruns and efficiency, the program was a nightmare. Spy satellite technology surpassed shuttle technology quickly and the Challenger tragedy in 1986 gave the Air Force an excuse to bury its shuttle program and donate its shuttle, Discovery, to NASA.

Despite difficulties imposed by design flaws, NASA soldiered on, doing good science under adverse conditions. Eventually it even made space flight seem routine.

Each space shuttle is designed to carry out 100 flights over a period of about 10 years. Six of them have been built since the program started in 1977. They are: Enterprise, Discovery, Challenger, Endeavor, Atlantis and Columbia. Only the last five of these have flown in space. Because of their temperamental nature, the five spaceworthy shuttles have only completed a total of 113 flights and have done so over a period of 22 years.

Much of the technology on the shuttle predates its design. In its manned program, NASA practices what some people call “reverse economics,” common to the space business. The idea is that, when you have lives – or in the case of industry, customers – on the line, it’s safer to use 10-year-old technology that you know will work, rather than a state-of-the-art system that might freeze or cut out. Much of the technology aboard the shuttle is actually 40 years old.

The X-33, otherwise known as the VentureStar, was to be built by Lockheed Martin to replace the space shuttle. The design proved fatally flawed. Some claim that Lockheed knew this when it bid on the contract and decided to cheat the program anyway. But the bottom line is, the program was too expensive for NASA’s eroding budget.

There are people who hate NASA. They claim that it diverts money from social programs and education or they lump it with defense spending. These are stupid arguments in my book. NASA takes up less than 3 percent of the national budget and funding for the agency has dropped every year for over 10 years. The Pathfinder mission cost the average American about one dollar. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft cost about one penny a world for each person on Earth, to quote Carl Sagan.

NASA doesn’t divert money from education. NASA is education. The program does not have anything approaching a defense budget and it became completely peripheral to defense spending by the mid-1980s. Even when NASA was closely tied to defense, it was probably the most productive outlet for aggressive impulses in history. The modern concept of the Earth’s fragility – a photograph of a small pearl in a vast void – comes from the Apollo missions. Instead of destroying ourselves in the Cold War, we went to the moon. That’s education.

NASA is no longer tied to defense. That’s why it’s politically unpopular. That’s why the shuttle program has only half of its original funding and a maintenance crew of 1,800 rather than the original 3,000. That’s why there is no viable replacement for the space shuttle, which was intended to be out of service in 1982. That’s why there is no X-38 return vehicle waiting to take the crew of the International Space Station back home. That’s why instead of retiring the Columbia in 1999, NASA made the decision to overhaul it and reuse it until 2015.

NASA is in a vicious funding cycle. Its programs underwhelm the public – there are no trips to the moon, no men on Mars. Politicians score points by slandering it and penalizing it. So NASA’s budget is cut, its programs become less spectacular and the cycle begins again.

More pressure, less funding – this is the true recipe for disaster.

This accident was not entirely unexpected. In 1996, Brian O’Connor resigned as associate administrator for the shuttle program, saying it posed unacceptable risks. In 2002, Richard Blomberg of NASA’s safety advisory panel said he was more worried than ever before about the safety of the shuttle.

Experience is a good guide as well. The TWA accident several years ago occurred because no one had considered the effects of aging on wiring that ran through the fuel tanks of 737 commercial jetliners. Even with careful maintenance, a 22-year-old vehicle should not necessarily be flying.

Ever since NASA made the decision not to continue the shuttle program through the next decade, I morbidly joked that there would be an accident one of these days. Now I wish I hadn’t. There is one good argument for cutting back manned space flight: It diverts funds from science missions, the risks are too high and the benefits too low to justify such diversions. In current conditions, this is true.

But suddenly, NASA is popular with the public again. The shuttle program now has the commitment of the president. I see two possible outcomes: 1) Support for the shuttle program will force the aging vehicles back into service until another accident occurs, or 2) the investigation will turn sour, NASA administrators will be blamed for the failures and the manned space program will be put on permanent hiatus.

Neither of these outcomes is for the best. The impulse to discover gets lost in a money-driven society. Discovery is a truth bigger than dollars, though it is sometimes constrained by them. We have the resources to build the next generation of manned spacecraft – resources tied up in designing fighter planes, smart bombs and missile defense. These too are education but they teach hate and paranoia. They fill the purest needs with the worst perversions. As someone whose passion lies in the world of discovery and the politics surrounding it, I am not prepared to mourn the dream of space flight. I am prepared to take it personally.

Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science editor.