Two and a half months ago, in a paroxysm of sheared metal, and gouts of tortured ceramics and human flesh and bone, we lost another shuttle orbiter and its crew.
The title of this column has a dual meaning. Thankfully, the war is essentially over, and rather than writing columns about how we will (not might, but will) overcome this temporary diversion by a legion of soulless monsters who revel in destroying life, I can return to reflecting on the more long-term and significant issue of how to ultimately expand that life into the universe.
When it comes to space policy (as indeed, when it comes to policy in general) I tend to have a cynical and skeptical outlook. But even I harbored some frail hope that that dramatic event might result in a rethinking of our so-far disastrous approach to opening up the high frontier (assuming, with thin basis, that this was a national goal) — that it would be a sobering event to even the most jaded and crass arbiters of well-marbled pork that is our current space program.
Sadly, cynicism once again rules the day. This Florida Today article demonstrates amply that nothing has changed. The title is "Columbia disaster fails to inspire space policy." And, as always, space policy fails to inspire me, or anyone who wants us to become a truly space-faring nation, in which trips to space are no more notable than trips across the Atlantic, or across the American continent.
Here's another depressing example of the moribund state of policy thinking, even (or especially) post-Columbia. It is the congressional testimony of one of the usual suspects, space policy "expert" Marcia Smith of the Library of Congress.
It repeats the same stale conventional wisdom about why we do human space flight, with nary a mention of making it possible for the masses to go.
She has five policy options for the future, none of which do anything to significantly change the status quo, in which we continue to spend billions per year for the dubious purpose of sending a few government employees into orbit.
— 1. Terminate the U.S. human space flight program, including the space shuttle, U.S. participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and plans to develop an Orbital Space Plane.
— 2. Terminate the shuttle and Orbital Space Plane programs, but continue participation in the ISS program, relying on Russian vehicles for taking U.S. astronauts to and from space when possible.
— 3. Terminate the shuttle program, but continue participation in the ISS program and continue to develop the Orbital Space Plane or another replacement for the shuttle.
— 4. Continue the shuttle program, but with fewer missions-perhaps limiting it to space station visits-and as few crew as possible.
— 5. Resume shuttle flights as planned.
Without even specifying what it is, my preference is 6) None of the above. If I can't get that, I'm inclined to go with option 1 — shut down the current manned program entirely. At least we'll be honest, and stop pretending that we're interested in space.
As I've said many times, space policy is always framed in an assumption set. Her assumption set is that NASA, and only NASA, will continue to do manned space, human spaceflight will always be expensive and rare, and that there's nothing to be done with it except to "explore."
Here's the problem. We just fought, and won, a war in less than a month.
We did so because many people believed that it was important to do so — that a failure would result in not just a loss of international prestige, but potentially massive loss of human life. Accordingly, they gave the effort the resources it required, and put in place incentives to ensure that the desired results would be achieved.
The military has its own pork-barrel problems, but it ultimately has a bottom line. If it fails in its mission, it can result in not only the death of members of the military, but perhaps the nation itself, so there is an ultimate check on the degree to which politics can determine decisions at the Pentagon. It has accountability.
NASA is different.
Despite all the lofty speeches, the recitations of Lt. John Magee's poem, the solemn promises to build a new space program on the rent bodies of the dead astronauts, it's clear that the only goal that is truly important in the space program, as always since the end of Apollo (and it was a significant goal then), is to ensure that the requisite jobs are delivered to the requisite congressional districts.
No president will lose an election, and few, if any, lawmakers will, if we haven't made much progress in settling the high frontier. Indeed, the only election that I can think of in which space was an issue, it was a negative one. Former Sen. Jack Schmitt, a scientist astronaut, lost his New Mexico Senate seat. His opponent's motto? "What on earth has Jack Schmitt done for New Mexico?"
Even if the American people cared, we don't even have any useful yardsticks by which to measure our progress in such an endeavor, at least not any that can be calibrated against other standards, others' progress. When the people have had it drilled into them for decades that Space Is Hard, by the only entity provided with the funding needed to accomplish anything in that new environment, who is to gainsay it?
Space remains a monopoly of a state socialist enterprise, and one that ensures that there is no competition to shine any light on its lack of success, or even a definition of it. Until we recognize that as a problem, rather than a solution, and until we decide that actual achievement in space should take priority over which NASA center (if any) achieves it, and until we harness our natural qualities of flexibility and free enterprise that have made us so successful globally, in peace and war, our species, and life itself will continue to be tethered, on a very short leash, to the single planet on which it evolved.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.