One summer my grandmother took me to see the movie Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The film (and the television show it turned into) was forgettable except for its opening scene.
“The year is 1987,” announcer William Conrad intoned, “and NASA launches the last of its deep-space probes.” That introduction explained how Capt. “Buck” Rogers happened to pop up in the distant future. Back in 1979 it seemed plausible that NASA would have launched several deep-space probes by 1987. After all, back then we all knew that “if they can put a man on the moon, they can (fill in the blank).”
Today, NASA couldn’t even put a man on the moon, let alone launch a manned deep-space probe. The lunar exploration program is probably the only federal government program in modern history that’s actually come to an end.
NASA’s problem isn’t a lack of spending. Last year the government gave the space agency $16 billion. But in true bureaucratic fashion much of that investment was wasted. The newspaper Florida Today recently reported that a fifth of NASA’s budget—$3 billion—funds pork-barrel projects earmarked by lawmakers. Those projects include museums, school equipment, a Web site for an aquarium and a research group in West Virginia.
And if that seems wasteful keep in mind that even NASA’s signature programs are little more than a waste of money.
The space shuttle, for example. It was a technological marvel in the Buck Rogers’ era of the late 1970s. Now it’s held up about as well as a ’79 Oldsmobile Delta 88—it looked great when it was new, but you wouldn’t want to set off on a long trip (say, into orbit?) in one now.
We first learned how dangerous a space shuttle trip was in 1986 when the shuttle Challenger disintegrated during liftoff. But we kept sending people up to orbit the Earth and return. Then, in 2003 shuttle Columbia (an orbiter which had been in service for 22 years) blew up during re-entry.
But if there’s danger involved why do we keep sending people up in the space shuttle? Well, NASA would say because the shuttle is critical in building the International Space Station. The I.S.S, after all, is the space agency’s other signature program.
It’s an orbiting lab where international scientists (hence the name) can perform experiments. But I.S.S. is hardly a groundbreaking creation. Just as the Russians beat us into space in the 1950s, they beat us into a space station in the 1980s.