Lost On Earth

Illlustration by Mr. Fish

“Discovery” seems a bit of a misnomer. The main discoveries NASA is making these days are problems with its spacecraft. The shuttle Discovery had been plagued by troubles from the start: Several launch dates in June were rescheduled; a two-day flight review was followed by another ditched attempt, that time because of a failed fuel sensor. Then, after liftoff, it happened anyway — a 1-pound chunk of foam debris fell from the fuel tank, the same thing that doomed the Columbia shuttle.

President Bush wasted no time in congratulating the returning astronauts, and he still dreams of an $11 billion program to colonize the moon and send humans to Mars, which says a lot about the administration’s environmental, foreign and domestic policies, or lack of them. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that the entire space program is referred to as “Plan B” around the White House. Environment? “Fuck it, we’ll live on Mars!” Immigration? “Let’s see ’em get to the moon!” Bush has also mentioned plans of “tapping the resources on the lunar surface.” (“Oil runs out, I’ll mine the moon!”)

Bush likes to say that exploring space “improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.” Hmmm, maybe better health care for all could do that. Still, you have to admit that nothing says “superpower” like twin sonic booms over Southern California.

“We are going to try as hard as we can to get back in space this year because we have a big construction project we are working on. We need the shuttle to do it.”

—Mike Griffin,
head of NASA, August 9

“I think we owe it to the hard work that has already been done on this mission to take another look at the problem of the foam and see if it can be better understood before putting the final nail in the coffin.”

—Valerie Neal, a space-history curator
at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air
and Space Museum, August 9

“They have been working on the shuttle now for a third of a century, and I think there is general agreement now that that dog won’t work.”

—John Pike, a space analyst at
Globalsecurity.org, August 9

“I don’t think we should fly again unless we do something to prevent this from happening again.”

—Eileen Collins, Discovery
commander, July 29

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