A waste of space

Posted: Jun 30, 2006 12:05 AM
A waste of space

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.

The Russians launched the first segments of their space station MIR in 1986. The station was assembled in orbit (as the I.S.S. would later be) and orbited for more than 15 years. It was frequently visited by Soyuz space ships, which delivered food, water and fresh crew members. By the end of its life it had been manned by both Russians and Americans.

So it’s not clear what the I.S.S. brings to the dance. It’s little more than an updated MIR where scientists can float around and study the effects of zero gravity. Its major reason for existing seems to be to give the shuttle fleet a destination. And, in a nice circle of reasoning, the shuttles exist to service an international space station. How convenient.

The sad fact is that we don’t really explore space because we’ve allowed the government to monopolize the exploration of space. If we want to energize space exploration and go beyond our planet, we should encourage private organizations to get into the business.

Several such groups are already operating. One, named Space Adventures, helped put American millionaire Dennis Tito aboard the International Space Station in 2001. In 2004 the privately-built SpaceShipOne claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize when it climbed into suborbital space twice within five days.

Once private organizations realize there’s money to be made in outer space they’ll spend what it takes to get there. And there’s another bonus: Instead of asking NASA’s government employees to risk their lives we’d have a pool of wealthy volunteers—people like Dennis Tito—who realize the risks but are willing to take them, whether out of scientific curiosity or the desire to be “the first man to (fill in the blank).”

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch next month. We should wish Godspeed to those aboard but also work to break the government’s control of space travel. It’s time for private companies to turn science fiction-style Buck Rogers missions into science fact.

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