Politics & Policy

To The Smithsonian…

…not beyond!

Now that the space shuttle Discovery is back safely, we can breathe a sigh of relief, hail the pluck and bravery of its crew, and ask: How did our space program become so invested in such a clunker?

It’s almost as if the shuttle exists so we can throw it into orbit to see if its crew can manage to get it back down again. This is not stuff to fire the imagination. Despite NASA’s fluff about the “wild success” of Discovery’s flight, at this point about the only people enthusiastic about the shuttle program are aerospace contractors and the pork-barreling congressmen from those states where NASA makes its home. For them, every half-a-billion-dollar space-shuttle launch represents the wonderful majesty of cold, hard cash.

Defenders of the embattled shuttle program say, among other things, that it is needed to support the international space station. Alas, it’s true. The shuttle basically exists to go to the space station, and the space station exists so the shuttle can have someplace to go. They are mutually reinforcing boondoggles. Together they represent the stunted dreams and the wasteful spending of the space program 36 years after Neil Armstrong took “one small step.”

The shuttle has a great future behind it. It was supposed to fly every week–but now is lucky to go a handful of times a year and is grounded again after NASA spent two years and $1 billion failing to figure out how to stop foam from dangerously flaking off the fuel tank. It was supposed to carry satellites into orbit for launching, an impossibly costly way to get satellites into orbit. Now it’s creaky, dangerous and nearly purposeless.

Journalist Gregg Easterbrook, in a devastatingly convincing scourge of the shuttle program, writes: “The shuttle’s main engines, first tested in the late 1970s, use hundreds more moving parts than do new rocket-motor designs. The fragile heat-dissipating tiles were designed before breakthroughs in materials science. Until recently, the flight-deck computers on the space shuttle used old 8086 chips from the early 1980s, the sort of pre-Pentium electronics no self-respecting teenager would dream of using for a video game.”

A Federal Aviation Administration official estimates that if commercial aviation had the same accident rate as the shuttle, more than 500 flights would crash a day. The science projects conducted aboard the shuttle have the musty whiff of make-work. The experiments on the doomed shuttle Columbia included examining “bacterial and yeast cell responses to the stresses of spaceflight” and developing “the gravity-sensing organs of fish in the absence of gravity.”

The spectacularly expensive space station is just as dismal. It was supposed to serve as a jumping-off point for further space exploration and provide a platform for zero-gravity manufacturing. Nothing doing. Now, one of its main functions is to serve as a symbol of international cooperation. The U.S.-Russia joint work on the station is a nice bookend to the Cold War, which had fueled the space race between the two countries. But how much do you want to pay for your nice bookends? The bottled water that astronauts drink on the space station costs nearly half a million dollars a day, according to Easterbrook’s calculation. It has two astronauts on board who are focused on routine maintenance and serve as guinea pigs to test the effects of long-term weightlessness.

The shuttle is slated to be retired by 2010. It can’t come too soon. The space program is better focused on getting astronauts to a destination: the moon, Mars, wherever. In the meantime, unmanned probes are the space program’s stars. They explore Mars and Saturn, deliver beautiful images of the far reaches of the universe, and shoot projectiles at comets. NASA is nonetheless considering cutting funding for Voyager 1 and the data it’s sending back from the edges of the solar system so the space shuttle can be kept limping along. Time to give the shuttle an honored place in the Smithsonian.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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