Space shuttle America

Posted: Aug 03, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 It was not always thus. While we have always been a strong and confident country, until the great rise of our affluent middle class after WWII, millions of Americans lived hard scrapple lives unaided by the taxpayer's relief. It was only at the culmination of WWII that we came into our full military domination of the world. And it was only in the last 40 years that we came to assume a college education and health care for virtually all our citizens who want them. We have come to take for granted that we can protect ourselves from all dangers and even most inconveniences.

 But on Sept. 11, we were disrupted, at least briefly, from our slumbering dreams of mastery and safety. While the barbaric act was seen clearly by all, for many Westerners the extent of our vulnerability was not -- and is not -- fully appreciated.

 A Bronze-Age mentality -- primitive and yet cunning -- may be able to disrupt or even bring to a halt our entire complex enterprise by disabling the smallest pieces of our leviathan. But most Americans (and most of our politicians and journalists) still live in a comfortable, if unjustified, sense of overall safety. Despite the continuing warnings -- most recently in London -- the mortal threat of Islamist insurgency and violence remains for most people only a theoretical danger. We will be disabused of that illusion.

 The NASA team, caught unprepared once again for the contingency of catastrophic vulnerability, is forced to improvise with an un-practiced space walk and with makeshift tools that may or may not fix the problem. All praise the brave astronauts, but surely unjustified pride, overconfidence (and under-funding) back at headquarters plays a part in the current space shuttle danger.

 At least the space shuttle fleet can be grounded, if necessary, after this flight. But we cannot remove America from the dangerous world we are in.

 America should stay in space and we should stay firmly atop the world we have done so much to make and make civilized: still ambitious but vastly more wary and attentive to protecting both our magnificently complex machines and our necessarily complex civilization.

 As we cannot return to simplicity, we must diligently learn to survive in complexity.