High on Crack
Put the Shuttle Out Of Its Misery
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, July 3, 2006
We forget how safety concerns plagued the space shuttle even before it took its first flight in 1981. From a New York Times story on January 24, 1981: “The astronauts who are to fly the first orbital test mission of the space shuttle Columbia said here today that they had confidence that the new space plane was flightworthy, despite its years of development problems, and that they would be ‘140 percent trained’ by the launching day.” They were preparing to launch aboard Columbia. Of course they could be trained 10,000 percent: It wouldn’t make a difference to a one-pound piece of foam that could come undone and knock a hole in the shuttle’s fuselage, as one did, pulverizing Columbia on re-entry on its twenty-eighth flight and killing its 140-percent-trained crew. Just its twenty-eighth flight. Challenger exploded on its tenth. They’re prepping Discovery, the workhorse of the bunch, for its thirty-second flight, another one of those “return to space” crapshoots, this one on July 4. (Atlantis has had twenty-six flights, Endeavor is still a teen with nineteen).
NASA puts odds of a big accident at 1-in-100, which is, of course, sheer bull: there’s been one hundred and fourteen flights, two of which have ended in disaster. That puts the odds of a disaster at 1-in-50, but they’re actually much lower than that when you look at the flimsy things shuttle by shuttle. NASA is all but begging for a disaster with Discovery, a rickety mass of fixer-uppers that should have gone up last week but has been delayed, day after day, allegedly by weather and now more honestly, maybe, by new discoveries of cracks in the ship’s insulation foam.
Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, speaks as if he were on crack in defense of the shuttle’s latest attempted lunge at pointlessness: he’s more concerned about keeping a schedule. The “insanity shuttle,” you see, is making a delivery of food and spare parts to the $100 billion International Space Station, that other homage to catatonia. And the shuttle’s schedule includes safety training for future space shuttle missions, even though those are winding down what remains of their bare-existence until retirement in four years. Has there ever been a more symbolically pointless mission than Discovery’s? (I mean in space. The Iraq war is another story.) This one is taking jumper cables up with it. Jumper cables. In case there’s an accident. In case the astronauts have to leave the shuttle, hole up at the space station while waiting to bailed out. To not lose the machine, the shuttle would be hot-wired to make the flight home on automatic pilot. So we have a now virtually useless set of shuttles servicing a useless space station in a symbiotically reaffirming relationship of mutual uselessness, and Michael Griffin is worried about keeping a schedule.
Between the shuttle program, the space station and the missile-shield foolery that started in Reagan’s days, we’re talking a waste approaching half a trillion dollars, with what to show for it but a few manufactured space cowboys and a whole lot of low-orbit nothing? The missile shield is even more of a fiasco than the shuttle has been: at least the shuttle could fly. So far pigs have flown better than the Pentagon’s attempt at intercepting a missile. But so it’s been for America and space since Skylab. Glamorous vanity as skin-deep as actors’ make-un in “Star Wars.”
The best they can do for Discovery and the rest of its wobbly siblings is ground the fleet, send it to the Smithsonian, sell the planes to Delta or United or some overstocked school district in Florida: the shuttles could serve as interesting portable classrooms. The last thing they should do is shoot it up. Spend the $5 billion a year being wasted on manned flights on unmanned missions instead. NASA’s unmanned program, a discount space affair if there ever was one, has been as fascinating and enriching as the manned program has been a dud and a bore. But there’s no sex appeal in unmanned flights. Americans don’t really want to get all excited about interplanetary exploration if there isn’t, as in NASCAR races, the chance of a snuffy wreck to watch from afar. Which goes to show how little people’s scientific interest is in these missions—and how macabre, under the guise of “courage” and pretensions of “pioneering spirit,” is the real interest. A single unmanned mission like Cassini (Saturn’s flirt) or New Horizons (the double-timing probe of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt), to say nothing of that old eminence Hubble, does more for science and humanity’s understanding of itself (philosophical and cosmological dimensions included) than any ten space shuttle missions combined. But interest, if there is any, remains in the “manned” business. NASA wants its stars in space. Even at the price of a few televised slaughters to no end along the way.
In 1981, Columbia was due to fly on its maiden voyage on March 17. NASA announced in February the flight would be delayed until April because of “an accumulation of minor problems.” Those accumulations can be crushing. Or explosive. That about sums NASA’s manned space program.