As an old space cadet, I continue to follow the missions of the space shuttle with both hope and foreboding. Its current plight seems to provide a metaphor, in some ways, for the plight in which the United States finds itself in the world today.
The Shuttle is the most complex moving machine ever built by man. Conceived in the 1960s, the current machines are up to 25 years old and weigh 4.5 million pounds at launch. The program has cost over $145 billion as of early 2005. It was built with America's typically unrestrained confidence that it would function virtually flawlessly and with safety for its crew.
Despite the age of the machines and the technology, no other people on the planet yet have had the skill, wealth and will to build such a thing. It is a triumph of engineering to assemble millions of parts into the necessary complexity that permits the machine to function with only two failures in a quarter of a century under the extreme pressures of launch, space, reentry and re-use.
And yet. The safe functioning of this whole magnificent contraption is, at this writing, possibly threatened by the unintended extrusion of a few square inches of material from between a couple of thermal tiles.
Our top aeronautical engineers cannot predict whether such a small extrusion of material may create wind friction, and thus heat, upon reentry that might destroy the shuttle on its return to Earth. So, one of the astronauts has been assigned to take a space walk and try to cut off the material with a small hack saw -- without pulling loose any of the tiles which might, itself, threaten the mission.
It is ironic that such a complex piece of modern engineering might have to rely on an essentially bronze age technology -- the small hand saw -- for its very survival.
But the essential vulnerability of the shuttle -- and perhaps the vulnerability of our American civilizational enterprise itself -- lies in its very nature. In order to be capable of its massive effectiveness, it must be complex. But in its complexity is its vulnerability. So many things must work to keep the leviathan functioning.
Moreover, the growing confidence in our own capacity that emerged within us as we successfully constructed and launched such a complex, powerful and wonderful device may have given us the false confidence that we could continue to operate it indefinitely -- and increasingly on the cheap.
So, too, America since the end of World War II has grown ever more masterful and dominating on the planet. By the fall of Communism at the end of the last century, we stood as the colossus of the ages -- with a sense of ineffable safety and mastery of all we beheld.
Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.
In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.