While all eyes have been on the US election, the spreading financial crisis and – of course – pirates, the Bush administration has quietly and ignominiously (if you ask me which everyone persists in not doing) shut down NASA’s space shuttle program. OK, it wasn’t while we were watching the current mess, but while we were watching the fallout from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that the deal went down. Remember back in 2004 or so all the hoopla about Bush’s plan to send Americans back to the moon, onward to Mars and generally going where no man has gone before (hey, wait a minute, I think I hit on a perfect casting call in William Shatner for the Shrub, don’t you?)? Well it was just cover for the fact that at the very same time he scuttled the shuttle. That’s right; starting in 2010, if NASA wants to send an astronaut to the International Space Station, it will have to buy a seat on one of Russia’s Soyuz craft just like space tourists do. Yup. The only way to launch humans will be from Russia’s Star City, the once secret city outside Moscow where cold-warriors were trained, and where a sizable contingent of NASA employees currently live, collaborating with bonhomie and zest with the employees of Roscosmos. They do this not just because space scientists are all happy, friendly and into nerdy camaraderie, but because, to Moscow’s credit, Roscosmos has yet to be wielded as a geopolitical weapon by the Kremlin, as was done with Gazprom, but I digress.*
I’m joined in my shock and dismay at this post-dated development, by NASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, who called the situation of being unable to launch our own astronauts, no matter how well they get along with the cosmonauts, “unnecessary in the extreme”. He is reported to have initiated a re-evaluation of the possibility of operating the shuttle past the scheduled decommission date of 2010 “about five minutes after the Russians invaded Georgia.” Fine, but where would the money come from? NASA’s budget of $17bln can’t handle both the shuttle program and the Constellation program for shooting capsules and rockets beyond the ISS’s low orbit. That program is the one Cap’n Kirk – I mean the President – was touting so hard that no one really noticed the axe falling on the shuttle. And then there’s the $700bln for the bad boys of banking and the $600bln for a pointless war in Iraq. Those things, obviously, come first. So if we aren’t dependent on dependable ol’ Russia for getting a lift to the ISS, who knows? Maybe we’ll be hitching on to China’s wagon. After all, the way things are going, the Chinese will be getting to the moon before we do. Where’s Jackie Gelason when you need him?
Representative Tom Feeny (R- Florida), responding to the suggestion that the first lunar base be named after Neil Armstrong said “What makes you think the Chinese are going to give us permission to name their base after one of our astronauts?” Which is a point that might have Dwight Eisenhower spinning in his grave, since 50 years ago he inaugurated NASA by vowing that the US would lead the space race. The problem isn’t so much that any of us have such an enormous interest in being first in the space race (we didn’t even notice the axe fall back in ’04, did we?), but that it’s another example of politics trumping science and long-term interests. As Griffin said: “Within the administration retiring the shuttle is a Jihad, rather than an engineering and program-management decision.” And that particular Jihad rallies to the war-cry of “Privatize!”
NASA has put out a bid for contracts for hauling stuff to the ISS, and it got some 16 tenders. The good news is that the bid was only tendered in the US, so we won’t be having the Russkies carrying our people while Belarus launches our stuff, but still. Isn’t it enough that we’ve contracted out or food supply to those Champions of Safety China and Mexico? Certainly if Grandpa and Gidget get into the White House in January (105 days 4 hours, 14 minutes and 33 seconds until the transfer of power, but who’s counting?) they’ll take the privatization route and instead of investing in NASA, they’ll give our tax dollars to Elon Musk, founder of Pay Pal AND a rocket-building enterprise who has tried to launch three privately funded ($100m of his own money) spacecraft into orbit. Unfortunately for him, they failed to reach escape velocity. No matter how he does in future ventures, I’m just uncomfortable in a quaint sort of old-fashioned way that something so fundamentally important as space exploration is being privatized while a huge sector of the economy is being nationalized (hi, Hugo! Que pasa?). Its just, you know…wrong? Like wearing white after Labor Day, or eating foie gras at a tailgate party.
* By the way; Star City, back in the cold war days didn’t appear on maps since it was all hush-hush and Top Secret. Here in the US, as far as I know (and I know very, very little, I admit especially about what is Top Secret and hush-hush) the only way to wipe a town off a map is to discontinue its Post Office, which just might happen here soon, as the Postal Service plans layoffs and closings and consolidations because the “run it like a business” mantra has just about run it into the ground, and is apparently more important than the principle of Universal Service. I seem to have forgotten, so someone remind me: with the establishment of the modern Postal Service in 1972, did we not as a nation express a principle which states that all Americans should have profit-free mail delivery? And by extension, don’t we value all Americans having high-speed, affordable internet access? If not, let’s just send a memo to rural America saying that they are all second-class citizens. At least it would be in writing. So there. Now I’ll step off my soap-box. Or maybe not. Just in case you or anyone you know is still fence-sitting: John McCain voted in 2003, 2004 and 2006 to privatize federal jobs. I want my mail delivered to me and all my fellow Americans at cost, not by companies who pay their CEOs gajillions. Ta, ta, now.