A massive sonic boom echoed over Southern California before dawn on Tuesday.
I heard it, and knew then that Discovery had made it home. Flying at 25
times the speed of sound, the shuttle landed at Edwards and made a noise loud
enough to wake me up more than a hundred miles away. I’m sure the sweat was pouring,
from brows both at NASA and in Discovery’s cockpit. Everything was on the
line, for the agency and, of course, for the astronauts. I was sweating just looking
out my window, thinking about what it must have been like on descent. When the
topic had come up the night before with my father, a physicist at JPL, his response
was: “All I know is, if I was up there, I’d be putting a big freaking cork in
I’m not sure what that means, but my father was once almost sent to Houston to train as a payload specialist (i.e., astronaut), so I have to take his word, however confusing it may be.
And whether or not corks had anything to do with Discovery’s safe return, the one certainty about the shuttle is the uncertainty of its future. Although Atlantis is ready to fly in September, NASA has suspended future flights after Discovery’s space-borne drama. And rightfully so. But safety is not the reason the shuttle shouldn’t fly. NASA should get rid of the shuttle before the shuttle gets rid of NASA.
Let me soften that by first saying that I love the excitement of the shuttle as much as the next kid reared on Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica and The Martian Chronicles. The shuttle encapsulates the intrinsic thrill of space travel, and even looks like a plane, holding out the promise that one day we’ll all just be racing back and forth to the moon. In between hanging posters of Charon and Europa on my walls, I used to paint models of Columbia, and once even made the trek to Edwards to see a landing.
It was thrilling, partly because the shuttle is such an impressive, dangerous machine. “There are four giant pumps in that thing,” my father said, explaining how the shuttle is so complicated it could never be made 100 percent safe. “Each delivering 20,000 gallons of liquid oxygen per second. It strains the limits of engineering in every flight. The trip is so punishing the shuttles have to be almost entirely rebuilt after each launch. It’s almost a miracle they get off the ground.”
Sadly, those engineering miracles don’t translate into much science, as it turns out that high-priced thrills are mostly what the shuttle is good for. The program, along with its equally wasteful cousin, the international space station (ISS), takes up much of NASA’s budget — $4.3 billion, or about a quarter of the total in 2005 — despite the fact that, aside from repairing the Hubble telescope, the shuttle has done little of scientific value after two decades and $100 billion.
This mission, for example, was basically a costly Pink Dot delivery, bringing more granola and toilet paper to the space station and maybe bringing some trash back to Earth as a tip. There was no experimental payload, and had there been, it wouldn’t have mattered: The science on the shuttle and space station is high school stuff — one step above three-panel cardboard signs in the gym saying “Hypothesis: Growing Plants Like Mozart More Than Dokken B-Sides.”
In the words of one scientist, who provided the following analysis on double-secret background: “The shuttle and the space station are not worth a turd. They add nothing to human knowledge or understanding. And, worse yet, they suck funds away from everything else.” Such as the highly successful (and relatively cheap) unmanned missions like Cassini-Huygens or Deep Impact or the Mars Rovers, all of which are, dollar for dollar, somewhere on the order of 100,000 times more efficient than the clunky old shuttle.
Since its inception, the shuttle has been mostly a political project, a flying Cold War totem at the (huge) expense of real research — and it’s only going to get worse now that Bush, who doesn’t really believe in science, has grandly pronounced that Americans will again stand on the moon, and while we’re at it, let’s also fly humans to Mars for no real reason.
That’s an unfunded mandate that has already shifted further resources from real science to even more symbolic space flight. It’s typical Bush: more show; less substance. What will be sacrificed for Bush’s wan emulation of Kennedy’s Apollo program is what NASA actually does well: solar-system exploration, deep-space astronomy, and observation satellites for Earth sciences, which are ever more important for measuring things like global warming — I mean, of course, if there were such a thing.
Should current trends continue, NASA’s budget will eventually be entirely politicized, a $16-billion-a-year photo-op machine that is no longer devoted to seeking answers about our world and universe. That’s why Discovery’s foibles could actually be good luck for NASA: If the shuttle program and the ISS were significantly scaled back (or, dare I say, shut down), the new budgetary freedom would slow the agency’s demise. NASA would be able to satisfy Bush’s political imperative to develop the next-generation crew exploration vehicles and keep doing some science.
Only in retirement, it turns out, would Discovery help NASA keep living up to the shuttle’s name.