Thursday, July 28, 2005

A long-ago I told you so

The Decline of Western Civilization Part V—Foam in Space
July 28, 2005

Let me get this straight, we’ve spent tens of billions of dollars the foam falls off?—Many years ago—when the world and I were younger —I wrote a series of articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer lamenting the announcement that NASA was going to build the space shuttle. It wasn’t easy to write because you will find no greater fan of space exploration than I (I covered the space program for Reuters and the Inquirer), but I wrote that the design was ridiculous, the spacecraft would be excessively dangerous and most of all, the plans they had for it were exactly the wrong rationale for going into space. This was happening as lunar exploration was winding down, public attention was waning, and NASA was trying to figure out what to do next. They chose wrong. The articles won several awards.

[I once told an editor that the only thing in life I ever encountered in which the reality always exceeded the expectation—including sex—was watching the launch of a Saturn V rocket to the moon. God, that was wonderful!]

It was not then conceivable to me—or anyone else—that 30 years later we would have essentially abandoned space exploration. We have never returned to the moon and astronauts have died and billions of dollars have been spent for very little. It was a failure in courage. Now, with one of the last existing shuttles in orbit, NASA has again grounded its remaining fleet.

Getting into the defects in the design at this stage is useless; the shuttles have been flying for years and two of them have been destroyed. The rationale for why we have shuttles may be worth discussing as well as what they should have been doing with all that money.

If you were paying attention in the 70s and 80s when NASA was trying to justify the shuttle, you would have heard how cheaply they would be able to lift cargo into orbit. I remember stories saying it might get down to $100 a pound. Not close. Then there were all the neat experiments that would be performed in space that would revolutionize science and industry. Also not close, although one of the victims of the current problems may be the Hubble Telescope, one of NASA’s true triumphs.

But what bothers me the most is that the shuttle and the missions surrounding it were designed for orbital exploration. They never wandered far from Earth when they should have been helping humanity explore the solar system live and up close. The only justification for a shuttle would be to build a space station for the express and sole purpose of constructing spacecraft to go back to the moon and to start the exploration of Mars or even the moons of Jupiter. Spaceships for those journeys could only be built in space, and the shuttle could have been used to bring the workers and parts into orbit for their construction. Quite likely, had that been the mission, we’d probably have a permanent station on the moon and been to Mars by now.

[If you’d like another example of how civilization is retreating, try airliners. The SST went into service in the 1960s based on a 1959 design and went out of service a few years ago. They have never been replaced or improved upon and there are no plans to do so. Do you know that current airliners fly slower than earlier jets? And are they any more comfortable? Hah!]

There always is the argument: Why should we put so much effort and resources into going into space when there are so many problems.…. You can finish the sentence. That argument always infuriated me. It sounds like the two goals are mutually exclusive; you can’t do one if you do the other. Nonsense. We can do both if we want to. But there is a deeper philosophical answer to the question why go. The best answer came from a colleague during the space program, the late Jonathan Eberhart of Science News, who in one brilliant column cut through it all. We should explore space because that’s what we humans do. We explore. We are not content with where we are, we want to see what is over there. It is part of our spirit. When the great explorations of Earth began there probably were people who probably told Cook and Magellan and Hudson and DeSoto and Columbus and all the rest that it was a waste of resources or that if God wanted us to find a northwest passage He would have put up road signs or something. But they went. That’s us. We have the capacity (and as the modern-day analog to the old empires it is mostly the U.S.’s responsibility) to do it. What we lack is the will and courage.

We all hope the shuttle lands safely again. I also hope guys will balls go to work at NASA.

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