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A Waste Of Space

I have come to despise manned space exploration.  It is wasteful and inefficient, and the same money spent could fund unimaginable portfolios of unmanned science missions.  But back in the day, you know, when I was in my younger and middle teens, I was gung-ho for the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo programs -- and for the competing Russian programs, too.

But it was different then, too, because of the attitude of the astronauts and the bureaucrats who funded them.  They recognized that there was danger, that danger was part of the exercise.  They knew that if a few Brits and Portugese and Danes and Italians hadn't previously drowned in the Atlantic, then Columbus would never have made it.  For the last generation or so, though, safety has been paramount.  Safety as public relations, safety as politics.  It has drowned out the science, and it has drowned NASA in billions of dollars of wasted effort.

Challenger_1 We can compare the fates of Apollo I and the Challenger shuttle, which were destroyed on January 27th, 1967, and January 28th, 1986 respectively.  In 1967 we were horrified to lose three brave men to the fire.  But everyone got on with it.  It was a tragedy, but Apollo II kept on rolling because everyone knew it was a dangerous business with some certainty of losses.  In 1986, the loss of the Apollo_1 shuttle scuttled the program for years, with billions more spent for investigations of the investigators of the investigation.

Between 1967 and 1986 we had changed, and our attachment to manned exploration changed too.  Most people still seem to support it -- the non-military parts of the NASA budget could hardly survive without such support -- but with a catch:  they want it to be as safe as sitting at home on the couch.  And thus the wasted billions spent attempting to make manned space flight risk free.  Billions that could have been better spent on missions like the extraordinarily successful Mars rovers.

With this attitude, it is no wonder that today's Challenger anniversary is celebrated on front pages and on TV specials, while yesterday's anniversary of the deaths of Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee went almost unnoticed.

January 27, 2006 in History, Media, Science | Permalink


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I've heard it said that the shuttle was hazardously resized and resized again beyond its original capacity to carry top-secret spy satellites. It is less reliable than it should be due to cloak-and-dagger funny business.

Posted by: Nur al-Cubicle | Jan 30, 2006 12:30:06 AM

Hi Nur! I wouldn't be surprised if you are correct. Add that to the costs of making it "safe" and you have an unworkable system that should be scrapped.

Posted by: Jak | Jan 30, 2006 5:00:16 AM