by Alma A. Hromic
(Swans - October 10, 2005) "Shuttle program was a mistake," trumpeted a national headline. NASA chief Michael Griffin is on record to USA Today as saying that the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and nearly the entire US manned space program for the past three decades were mistakes. Apparently, according to Griffin, NASA "lost its way" back in the 1970s, with the end of the Apollo program.
The hapless space shuttle comes in for a particularly vitriolic smear. It is painted as "never having lived up to its promise," that it is far more expensive, less capable and -- here's the kicker -- less SAFE than it was expected to be.
"The shuttle is inherently flawed," Griffin stated while addressing Congress on May 12 this year. "It does not have an escape system for its crew, and we all know that since human perfectionism is unattainable, sooner or later, there will be another shuttle accident. I want to retire it before that flight can occur."
So let me get this straight. A "safer" vehicle would be one that would enable its occupants to eject while in orbit, perhaps, into the weightlessness and airlessness of space? Or to eject while the shuttle is in fiery re-entry, perhaps? Good grief -- airliners have been crashing and killing people regularly since the first days of flight, and nobody has suggested that every passenger be equipped with an ejector seat before an airliner passes a safety test. There are some risks that you just accept that you have to take when you go exploring a new frontier.
Mr. Griffin sidesteps with a mealy-mouthed caveat that, well, it isn't that the U.S. should not have sent astronauts into space at all; it should just have sent them in a "better and safer" vehicle. He might not have meant it that way -- in fact, I'm positive that he would deny meaning it in that way with his last dying breath -- but with this comment he insults every pioneer that ever stepped into the unknown because of a dream. He insults the men and women who took their lives into their hands and crossed the ocean to come to a new land called America (should they have waited for the Titanic instead of trusting themselves to the Mayflower?). He insults the men and women who took their lives into their hands all over again and stepped out into the wilderness and the unknown of the American West (should they have waited until they could do so in a "reliable" SUV?). He insults the Wright brothers and Lindbergh and everyone who ever took wing in defiance of the laws of gravity (should they all have waited for the jet plane? But wait -- those have been known to crash too...). He insults the very memory of those 14 brave men and women who died in Challenger and Columbia, people who believed in what they were doing, people who wanted to be doing it, people whose memory should be honoured and not defiled by suggesting that they should have waited (they? Or their great-great-grandchildren?) for a "better and safer" vehicle to take them to the stars.
"President George W. Bush and Griffin have been turning NASA in a new direction," a USA Today article says, and this gives me some little cause for concern. There are, as far as we know, no caches of oil or diamonds on the Moon or on Mars, and certainly not on the Space Station. We all know that the high frontier of space is a frontier, this is not news to anybody at all, least of all the courageous astronauts who go forth to explore it -- but is NASA's "new direction" based not so much on the saving of human lives as on the possibility of material gain? And, not seeing any in the near future, is it the agency's contention that the space program should be shelved indefinitely (in order to research a "safer" vehicle) or, at the very least, until such time as traces of fiscally useful matter are discovered under the red dust of Mars? It may sound like reaching, but is it? America's ever-increasing appetite for energy and this planet's ever-dwindling means of supplying the same have been motivations for other actions far closer to home. It may not be too big a stretch to envisage that NASA is being roped into the same corral.
In early September, NASA apparently unveiled the shuttle's replacement, with the shuttles themselves due to vanish into myth and history in 2010. The new craft are (naturally) touted as "inherently safer," and will have that essential ingredient the lack of which apparently doomed the shuttle fleet -- an escape system.
To those of us who have been working with computers for a while, the new scenario sounds awfully familiar, and awful, period. In order to exit a program -- kill it, make it go away -- you press a key marked "escape."
I worry about what hitting the "escape" key will do to the dream that NASA has nurtured for so long.