I'm down in the West Country at the weekend, and miles away from any sort of network access when the news of Columbia comes through. Which is frustrating: Usenet groups sci.space.shuttle and sci.space.history have a considerable congregation of people who were or are active in the American space industry... but in the end, none of that matters. We can worry about the International Space Station later, and it'll be a while before anyone works out what happened to Columbia: for now, nothing can touch the sadness and shock. The space programme has always been controversial: it's undoubtedly a great deal of money spent for reasons that are obtuse at best. Was Apollo the greatest expression of human's spirit of exploration, or a massive piece of Cold War machismo? How come the US is still at it? Why did a multi-billion dollar spaceship and seven astronauts perish when the sum total of humanity's knowledge and happiness would be largely untouched if they'd all stayed at home and painted the garden fence? Sitting on my backside in the United Kingdom, where our solitary rocket hangs in a museum, the irony of the US' commitment to manned spaceflight is even more sharply defined. The world's most materialistic and certainly one of the more religious nations is prepared to expend lives and seemingly infinite resources in the name of knowledge. That should be a lesson to everyone who, like me, is tempted to think of the States in simplistic terms. And besides, we've got places to get to, planets to see. As SF author Ken MacLeod said of the Columbia crew: their names will be written under other skies.