Politics & Policy

The Folly of Our Age

The space shuttle.

Like the monster in some ghastly horror movie rising from the dead for the umpteenth time, the space shuttle is back on the launch pad. This grotesque, lethal white elephant–14 deaths in 113 flights–is the grandest, grossest technological folly of our age. If the shuttle has any reason for existing, it is as an exceptionally clear symbol of our corrupt, sentimental, and dysfunctional political system. Its flights accomplish nothing and cost half a billion per. That, at least, is what a flight costs when the vehicle survives. If a shuttle blows up–which, depending on whether or not you think that 35 human lives (five original launchworthy Shuttles at seven astronauts each) would be too high a price to pay for ridding the nation of an embarrassing and expensive monstrosity, is either too often or not often enough**–then the cost, what with lost inventory, insurance payouts, and the endless subsequent investigations, is seven or eight times that.

There is no longer much pretense that shuttle flights in particular, or manned space flight in general, has any practical value. You will still occasionally hear people repeating the old NASA lines about the joys of microgravity manufacturing and insights into osteoporesis, but if you repeat these tales to a materials scientist or a physiologist, you will get peals of laughter in return. To seek a cure for osteoporesis by spending $500 million to put seven persons and 2,000 tons of equipment into earth orbit is a bit like… well, it is so extravagantly preposterous that any simile you can come up with falls flat. It is like nothing else in the annals of human folly.

Having no practical justification for squirting so much of the nation’s wealth up into the stratosphere, our politicians–those (let us charitably assume there are some) with no financial or electoral interest in the big contractor corporations who feed off the shuttle–fall back on romantic appeals to Mankind’s Destiny. Thus President Bush, addressing the nation after the Columbia tragedy two years ago:

These men and women assumed great risk in this service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth.

These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

Anyone who finds it “easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket” just hasn’t been following the shuttle program very attentively. One astronaut death per eight flights!

The rest of the president’s address on that occasion was, to be blunt about it, insulting to the memories of the astronauts who died, and still more insulting to their grieving spouses, children, parents, and friends. If these astronauts believed that “they had a high and noble purpose in life,” they were mistaken, and someone should have set them straight on the point.

Please note that “if.” The motivation of shuttle astronauts would, I suspect, make a very interesting study for some skillful psychologist. Here is Ken Bowersox, one of the astronauts who was actually on board the International Space Station (steady now, Derb, husband your wrath) when Columbia blew up. He is writing in the June 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics, putting the “pro” case in a debate on the continuation of the Shuttle program, versus former NASA historian Alex Roland arguing the “con.” Bowersox:

I’ve wanted to be in space from the time I was listening to the radio and heard about John Glenn circling the earth. Columbia was the klind of blow that could have made me walk away from it. As astronauts, though, we wouldn’t have been on the space station if we didn’t believe in the program. Even after losing our friends and our ride home, we still believed that exploration was important.

Far be it from me to pull rank on Astronaut Bowersox, but I’ve wanted to be in space for somewhat longer than that–since seeing those wonderful pictures by Chesley Bonestell in The Conquest of Space, circa 1952, or possibly after being taken to the movie Destination Moon at around the same time. The imaginative appeal of space travel is irresistible. I don’t think I could resist it, anyway. Even with two young kids who need me, and a wife who (I feel fairly sure) would miss me, I would still, if given the opportunity to go into space tomorrow, be on the next flight to Cape Canaveral. As Prof. Roland says in that Popular Mechanics exchange: “The real reason behind sending astronauts to Mars is that it’s thrilling and exciting.” Absolutely correct. The danger? Heck, we all have to go sometime. As President Bush said, I am sure quite truly: “These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly…” It’s the president’s next clause I have trouble with: “…knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life.”

Did they really know that? My experience of pointless make-work, which is much more extensive than I would have wished when starting out in life, is that people engaged in it know they are engaged in it. Whether they mind or not depends on the rewards. For a thousand bucks an hour, I’d do make-work all day long–aye, and all night too! Astronaut salaries don’t rise to anything like that level, of course; but there are rewards other than the merely financial. I hope no one will take it amiss–I am very sorry for the astronauts who have died in the shuttle program, and for their loved ones–if I quietly speculate on whether, being engaged in such a supremely thrilling and glamorous style of make-work, one might not easily be able to convince oneself to, as Astronaut Bowersox says, “believe in the program.”

None of which is any reason why the rest of us should believe in it, let alone pay for it. There is nothing–nothing, no thing, not one darned cotton-picking thing you can name–of either military, or commercial, or scientific, or national importance to be done in space, that could not be done twenty times better and at one thousandth the cost, by machines rather than human beings. Mining the asteroids? Isaac Asimov famously claimed that the isotope Astatine-215 (I think it was) is so rare that if you were to sift through the entire crust of the earth, you would only find a trillion atoms of it. We could extract every one of that trillion, and make a brooch out of them, for one-tenth the cost of mining an asteroid.

The gross glutted wealth of the federal government; the venality and stupidity of our representatives; the lobbying power of big rent-seeking corporations; the romantic enthusiasms of millions of citizens; these are the things that 14 astronauts died for. To abandon all euphemism and pretense, they died for pork, for votes, for share prices, and for thrills (immediate in their own case, vicarious in ours). I mean no insult to their memories, and I doubt they would take offense. I am certain that I myself would not–certain, in fact, that, given the opportunity, I would gleefully do what they did, with all the dangers, and count the death, if it came, as anyway no worse than moldering away in some hospital bed at age ninety, watching a TV game show, with a tube in my arm and a diaper round my rear end. I should be embarrassed to ask the rest of you to pay for the adventure, though.

** There are actually reasons to think we may have been lucky so far. News item: “Steve Poulos, manager of the Orbiter Projects Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, acknowledges there is ‘a debate’ inside the agency about the threat posed by space debris. One school of thought is that a fatal debris strike is ‘probable,’ Poulos said. But he said others think such an event is likely to be ‘infrequent’.” Uh-huh.


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