Saturday, July 16, 2011

They Had Liftoff

It seems that the American space program is ending with a whimper, not a bang – ironic considering how, um, incendiary their operations are. Of course, the program is not really ending, any more than any other government program ends – but it is being “redirected”, and the piece that really does seem to be in its final days is the space shuttle program. In fact, immediately after the final shuttle launch, space industry employees started receiving pink slips... which puts into my head visions of unemployment offices in Florida being flooded by guys with white shirts, skinny black ties, pocket protectors, and brush cuts.

Now, I have, on at least one other occasion, referred to the space program as “the world's biggest sandbox” -- which it demonstrably is, or was. Never before have so many paid so much to so few just so those few could pursue their space cadet-esque hobby. And its not even as if certain technological advances haven't spun off the program; they have – but at what price? Could the same technologies have been developed by private industry under market conditions? We'll never know. Is/was the space program just too big to expect any private enterprise, or even a large consortium of private enterprises, to undertake it? Well – that has always been the conventional wisdom, and yet it's funny how space travel has started to pique the interest of private firms, and even of private (if somewhat eccentric) individuals. But even then, one could argue that they are profiting from the technology developed with government funding, without which the technology would not exist and there would be no new-found advantages worthy of private investment.

But all of this may be beside the point, which is that, from a strictly libertarian point of view, the government has no business having a space program, or having any scientific or engineering programs at all, unless they relate directly to national defense. And in fact, the rationale for the space program at the beginning was precisely that – that it was an urgent matter of national defense, and did we really want the Russians setting up missile bases on the Moon, from which they could shoot at American baseball games and backyard barbecues at will? Whether our politicians really believed any of that is another question... and were they in fact repeating what the missile geeks told them? And if so, did the missile geeks really believe it? Again, we'll probably never know. But, as was the case with the interstate highway system, all one had to do was mention the word “defense” and the carte blanche was issued, with no limit on funds or time. So the guys who grew up reading about, and watching the exploits of, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon now had their own luxuriously-appointed sandbox to play in – for decades! -- courtesy of the American taxpayer.

So, to back up a bit, all it took was Sputnik and the “space race” was on. The fact that no one ever defined precisely what the space race was a race to didn't matter. It was a race to space, that's all. And if you didn't like it, you could go live somewhere else. It was, in many ways, the most American of all adventures – and it didn't even have the usual irritating quality of requiring that we conquer other people or nations in the process. No, space was virgin territory... unsullied... pure... not unlike North America at the time of the early explorers. Except for the Indians, I guess, but they're getting rich off all those casinos now, so they've got no complaint.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the stars. It turns out that Earth's gravity really is a big deal, and not something that pipe-puffing theorists can turn on and off at will (or politicians either -- and thank goodness for that!). It takes a lot of very serious energy to escape the bounds of Earth – which inevitably means a lot of money. There were more problems to be solved than anyone could have imagined, and the solutions often seemed more ridiculous than sublime. Instead of the sleek, needle-nosed spaceships of the old serials, we got the clunky-looking space shuttle. And instead of a shiny metal skin, it was covered in tiles like some sort of giant inside-out restroom. And yet, that turned out to be the best solution to the problem of re-entry – far from the movie visions of rockets gently easing themselves down onto landing platforms on a tail of fire. (I think we actually did something like that on the Moon, but the craft looked more like one of the critters in “Space Invaders” than something out of a sci-fi mag. And the Moon's force of gravity is but a fraction of ours.) (Which reminds me – could there be any more macho display than hitting a golf ball on the Moon? I guess they could have brought a deer along and shot it in front of a picturesque crater. Sheesh... )

And who knew that astronauts would wind up looking more like the Michelin man than like the space heroes of fiction with their skin-tight outfits? And hey – did any of those old space shows ever deal with the problems of garbage and “human waste”? Not that I'm aware. We all know that those fictitious characters had no bodily functions, right? I remember the first movie I ever saw where someone actually went to the bathroom; it was a shock! (I wonder if they really “went” or if they were just acting? Guess we'll never know... )

And how about "space junk"? Did anyone anticipate a time when there would be a ring of debris like some dump in Manila around the Earth?

Oh, and does anyone remember when we had to delay a launch because some woodpecker was pecking the insulation off one of our launch rockets? It was a protected species, as I recall...

Well, enough of that. It's easy to make fun – especially of the contrast between the armies of geeks manning mission control stations in Houston and the maniacs who were actually picked to go into space – you know, those guys with names like Buzz, Buck, Duke, Deke (real men all have one-syllable names, we know that)... oh, and then PC took over, and we had to have women in space... and blacks... and Orientals... and lesbian albino paraplegics. Oy... anything to keep the victim advocacy groups happy. But I mean, so what? If the whole thing was a game... a playground exercise... what did it matter who went along? The more the merrier. And the program even offered – albeit unplanned (I think) – opportunities to indulge in our favorite national pastime, namely the mourning of “national heroes” who die in the line of duty, or just happen to be in the wrong place at the very wrong time. Yes, it turned out that space travel – especially the getting up there and getting back part – is damned dangerous! Who knew? Again, we all had visions of Start Trek in our heads, with roomy staterooms where Kirk and the crew could sit back, relax, and pour a little bubbly at the end of a long day on the bridge. But the reality, let's say, slightly diverges from that image.

But I'm not so crabby as to deny the huge propaganda value of our having been the first (and last) to put a man on the Moon. Why, it actually balanced out the negative propaganda value of the war in Vietnam for a couple of weeks – quite an achievement, I must say. And it did give Americans something to rally around when everything else was going to hell -- in which case, why was the program so rudely slashed by Obama & Co.? Don't they appreciate the morale-boosting value of space exploration? Well, apparently they do – but not of anything so mundane and commonplace as the shuttle program has become. (Ever notice how almost everything we do up there is referred to as “maintenance”? How inspiring is that? Plus, what is it that's being maintained? Maintenance facilities, I guess.) No – now we're setting our sights on not just Mars, which was an idea that someone managed to put into George W. Bush's head, but – are you ready for this? -- landing on an asteroid. Yep, that's right, an asteroid – which one not specified, but the date has been penciled in: 2025. Yes, that's right, in only 14 years we might – if all goes well – have men on an asteroid. Um... hello? We might not have an _economy_ by then, to say nothing of being able to send people into space. We might not have a _country_ by then! And, BTW, where, pray tell, is the “defense” value in landing on an asteroid (or on Mars)? But oh, I forgot, that old defense argument went out the window with the end of the Cold War. Ever since, it's been more like the Mt. Everest argument -- “because it's there”.

Plus, check it out, “most Americans consider it 'essential' for the United States to remain a world leader in human spaceflight”. This is according to a recent national poll. But why is it “essential”? Apparently that question wasn't asked (and it's just as well, because few would have had a coherent answer). But at least it's a “good investment”, according to the same poll. But how is it a good investment? Again, not asked. And there is no shortage of retired astronauts willing to get up in front of Congress and the media and testify as to the absolute, indispensable, critical, not-to-be-denied value of the space program... and to wax highly indignant at any talk of cuts. Why, it's downright unpatriotic! (And that's the essense of so much special pleading, as we all know.) Well yes, if your entire career, and life, are defined by a single government program, you might have a tendency to support it for that reason alone. Who expects these guys to be objective? I sure don't.

But after all of this, I have to make a confession. I am one of the countless fans of the Hubble space telescope and of the fantastic pictures it's always relaying down to us Earthlings. Call me a hypocrite, go ahead. Yes, it has nothing to do with defense, but who can fail to be unmoved? Why, some of those pictures even have theological implications – an obvious fact which is always vigorously denied by the scientific establishment. And again, I suppose that the Hubble could have been designed, built, launched, and maintained by private industry – but would it? Given private industry's record when it comes to the aesthetically appealing regardless of the “bottom line”, I would say no. Again, we have this dilemma that the public will choose, and support, one sort of thing on the market level, based on supply and demand, but demand that government do other things that have no market significance, or even contradict it. Or, in the case of the Hubble, they can't demand things that they can't even imagine – but once something is in place, they have no problem demanding that it stay there. (See what happens when government subsidizes professional sports teams and facilities, for example, like in Pittsburgh. It's not even a one-time investment, but continues to drain public funds in perpetuity.)

But aside from the Hubble... well, I have to admit, I've never been fond of all the testosterone-laden astronaut iconography -- “The Right Stuff” and all that. But I guess this is the sort of thing every civilization needs – from the seafarers of ancient times through the Marco Polo types of the Middle Ages and the ocean-crossing explorers, up to our time. We need rough, buff, loud-talking, deeply-tanned guys to go “to infinity and beyond”, and to bring back tales to tell around the primitive fireside, with an ox haunch roasting on a spit. It speaks to the caveman in us – the people who held the one in awe who separated himself from their number and actually ventured over the hill to see what was in the next valley... and lived to tell about it. And who among the select few who have been to the Moon has not come back pronouncing himself as “changed”? Well, yes... but changed into what? Maybe just a lunatic.

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