Astronomical Failures


Cats may have nine lives, but elephants (or at least white elephants) appear to be immortal.

After the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the upper atmosphere earlier this year, the news was full of tidbits about how the national space program would emerge from this tragedy. Our glorious President Bush released a speech on that same day assuring us that 'The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.'

But at what cost and towards what ends? That was a nice speech, for certain, but it does not seem to have sprouted from any rational examination of the situation at hand. There is a point where perseverance is no longer a virtue, a point when it just becomes foolish. NASA is an unaccountable and out of control agency of highly dubious value with a long history of wasteful and careless projects; it is the quintessence of all that is wrong with government programs. Despite this fact, NASA (and the space shuttle program in particular) just won't die. Recently the media has been informing us that the shuttle program will be restarted in 2004. Forgive me if I don't cheer.

Many federal expenditures seem to be misguided projects originating from good intentions, but NASA is certainly not among them. NASA had its origins in an Army project begun shortly after WWII. Former Nazi scientists were imported to the United States to complete development of the high-powered rockets necessary to achieve space flight (and possibly global military domination). What was begun on the backs of slave labor in Germany was to be carried to fruition in the United States . NASA was officially born on October 1st, 1958 as a spin-off of this Army research.

In its early years, NASA pretended to be a somewhat practical endeavor. Its work consisted mainly of sub-orbital aeronautics research (for military applications) as well the launch of a variety of satellites. But less than three years later, on May 25th 1961 , President Kennedy gave the famous speech that catapulted space research to the position of a national priority. In the "Urgent National Needs" speech, Kennedy announced that landing a man on the moon was imperative because 'No single space project in this period [would] be more impressive to mankind.' He also noted that no other space project would "be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." The Soviets had become our Joneses, and bragging rights were officially of the utmost importance. This speech heralded the birthing of a great white elephant.

On July 20th, 1969 Kennedy got his wish and Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon ' a feat of exploration as worthwhile as, say, if Columbus had landed on Antarctica . They left a flag, some footprints, and a plaque. They brought back 20.87 kilograms of rocks. The only real benefit that most Americans saw from this landing was a momentary surge in national pride. Unfortunately, that was the last and largest payoff from the space program that most Americans have ever seen.

Since then, NASA has been wasting money on a phenomenal scale. They purport to do important research, but the majority of it shows no hopes of benefiting those who foot the bill. They have dumped massive amounts of money into the international space station in efforts to answer such pressing questions as "How are biological systems affected by the absence of gravity?" This is information that will certainly be of great utility as soon as there is a mass exodus of Americans from Earth, or if Californians decide to recall the laws of physics. Additional research can include anything from taking pictures of far-off galaxies, to proving the general theory of relativity, or bringing children's science projects into orbit. Most research is, at best, rather esoteric, and at worst totally useless.

Even if NASA was to find a field of research that would truly benefit the American people who are opening their wallets, that wouldn't solve the problem of the astronomical mission failure rate. NASA sent out the scientific satellite Galileo, which, to put it bluntly, just didn't work due to antennae failure. They sent out the Hubble telescope, which again, didn't work as planned (the space shuttle Columbia was the fourth Hubble repair mission). The Mars Observer was lost before it ever observed Mars. The Clementine mission left the spacecraft spinning like a drunk in geocentric orbit due to a thruster malfunction. The Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed simply due to problems converting from English to metric units. Only shortly thereafter, the Mars Polar Lander was lost while landing. The CONTOUR spacecraft sent to observe comets was most likely destroyed, but truthfully NASA does not even know what happened to it. And this is just a small sample from a long list of expensive blunders.

But of all the mistakes that NASA has made, you would be hard-pressed to find one more egregious than the shuttle program. The shuttle program has boasted a multitude of purposes, including running science experiments (of questionable use to the average American), docking at the International Space Station (the largest money toilet ever constructed), and launching the occasional satellite (which can be and has been done using booster rockets from Earth since the 1950s). But what the shuttle program does best is to put a tragic face on NASA's 'good-enough-for-government-work' culture. Between the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, 14 people have been killed riding in what NASA likes to call 'the world's largest and most sophisticated moving van.' This is approximately six percent of all astronauts trained since the shuttle program began in 1978. For the sake of comparison, this would be roughly equivalent to approximately 2,500 airline deaths per day from Oakland Airport alone.

Despite the fact that there have been some benefits to the general public stemming from NASA research (most notably telecommunications satellites), these benefits should have (and could have) been accrued at the expense of private corporations. These initial development costs would then have been distributed through the consumer base that utilizes these services, rather than at the expense of every taxpayer. And the fact that corporations are held accountable for their actions (through both profit margins and public opinion) would almost certainly have ensured a higher success rate, more tangible benefits, and a greater focus on safety. Corporations like Arianespace (the largest private satellite launcher, boasting annual sales approaching $1 billion) and TransOrbital (a private company pursuing lunar landings) demonstrate the fact that commercial space explorations are not infeasible.

But despite its appalling history, NASA lives on with a current operating budget of about $14.5 billion dollars a year (about $50 per man, woman and child in the country). It embodies everything that is wrong with government programs ' massive expense with little benefit to the average American and a culture of risk-taking that amounts to a reckless disregard for human life.

So while the media is cheering the fact that the shuttle program will restart in 2004 and you feel that surge of national pride swelling in your breast, don't forget the history of this organization and this program in particular. Take out your pad and your pencil, do some rough calculations, and figure out how much you are willing to pay in taxes and lives in order to grow soybeans in space. $14.5 billion a year and 14 lives is a cost too steep for me. It's time to let this white elephant die.

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Lara Hawrylchak's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Lara Hawrylchak is currently living in the wasteland of governmental credit expansion (Silicon Valley) in an attempt to relive herself of a sick fascination with politics by bludgeoning herself over the head with taxes and tomfoolery.  It is a rehabilitation more expensive and painful than a Betty Ford Center.  She writes to avoid overpressurization from buildup of excess sarcasm.