Friday, August 05, 2005

OK, One More Time. Why Are We Doing This?

Nice synopsis here of the history and current state of the Space Shuttle program. As has become all too clear in recent days, this is a program completely without purpose -- other than the purpose of madly improvising to keep from killing the people it is sending into low space orbit for no purpose.
In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight - the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade - on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft.


Over the past three years, while the manned program has been firing styrofoam out of cannons on the ground, unmanned NASA and ESA programs have been putting landers on Titan, shooting chunks of metal into an inbound comet, driving rovers around Mars and continuing to gather a variety of priceless observations from the many active unmanned orbital telescopes and space probes sprinkled through the Solar System. At the same time, the skeleton crew on the ISS has been fixing toilets, debugging laptops, changing batteries, and speaking to the occasional elementary school over ham radio.
Can there be any doubt that this will be the last Space Shuttle flight? If, God forbid, something happens again on re-entry it will surely never fly again. But even if it does return safely, how in the world will NASA ever be able to justify putting people in this type of harms way again for such meager purposes? It would be inhuman, wouldn't it?


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