TCS Daily


On Board the Discovery

By James Pinkerton - August 2, 2005 12:00 AM

The seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery face an unknown and possibly dire fate. In addition, the fate of the three-decade-old shuttle program itself looks bleak. Indeed, the path of humanity's trek into space looks murky and bumpy at best.

Only this is clear: our civilization will eventually settle amongst the stars -- or there won't be a civilization. If we linger on earth for too long, we will either destroy ourselves or, perhaps worse, snuff out the sparks of freedom and creativity that distinguish us from the sludge.

But in the near term, our hearts are with the astronauts. As the avatars of our future space quests, the Discovery crew is the thin edge of our collective wedge into the future. And yet we have let them down.

More than two years after the deadly disintegration of the Columbia, it's evident that NASA's "broken safety culture" has yet to be fixed. On July 17, the Associated Press quoted NASA's Wayne Hale, deputy manager of the shuttle mission, making light of the safety issue: Hale chuckled that Discovery's cranky and creaky components problem "reminds me of an old truck I own." A space jalopy? With seven of our best and brightest aboard? Yet the shuttle was launched on July 26 anyway.

But it's not the job of reporters to oversee space launches; it's their job to cover them. And for all the criticisms aimed at the media, in this instance, the basic human enthusiasm for exploration and discovery was manifest. "Wow," said CBS News' Bob Schieffer as the shuttle took off from Cape Canaveral last Tuesday. "Amazing," added MSNBC's Chris Jansing. Some portion of this cheerleading was no doubt a desire to see our country -- our government, our tax dollars -- actually succeed at something for once. But a deeper impulse was at work, too. It's not so much patriotism, but rather "spacetriotism" -- the feeling that we owe it not just to our country, but to our species, to be in space. Just as it was once our manifest destiny to walk on dry land, or to sail ships, or to fly airplanes -- now it's time to fly infinitely higher and farther.

Still, at least one journalist on hand in Florida managed some words of warning. Fox News' Jon Scott will be remembered as a bit prescient for saying, as the shuttle lofted upward, "They're not out of the woods by any means."

Indeed, as the Case of the Falling Foam unfolded, it was soon obvious that the journey through the dark woods of space-orbit would be difficult. "We decided it was safe to fly as is," said William Parsons, manager of the shuttle program, the day after the launch. "Obviously, we were wrong."

This being the era of Ubiquitous Media, all interested parties were soon heard from, on earth, and not on earth. "We were actually quite surprised to hear we had some large pieces of debris fall off the external tank," said shuttle commander Eileen Collins as she circled overhead. "Frankly, we were disappointed to hear that had happened. ... We thought we had this problem fixed."

And of course, the shuttles have all been grounded -- one launch too late.

Then also on the late side, came the media avalanche. The New York Times called the problem of the protuberance air load ramp (PAL) simply the last link in "a chain of missed opportunities and questionable judgments, not just since the Columbia disaster but over the life of the shuttle program."

And The Los Angeles Times put the matter even more starkly: NASA "has failed to solve the cause of the Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts on their return voyage in February 2003. And that was before the latest news: that perhaps the heat shield needed repair, too.

The Columbia is scheduled to return to earth on Aug. 8.

No doubt heads will roll within the NASA bureaucracy -- as they should. Columnist John Tierney was correct when he wrote, "For all its problems, the shuttles have safely returned from 98 percent of their missions, which may well be the highest success rate of any exploration program in history." Yet it must also be said that the shuttles are palpably too brittle for continuing use. Flying them is like trying to drive a Model T up a rugged mountain -- the vehicle is guaranteed to rattle apart.

And of course, there will be the usual calls to give up on the manned space program, so that we can focus on "unmet needs" here at home, so that we can be safe in our Hobbit-like existence here in Middle Earth.

But here's a prediction: No matter what happens to Discovery, no matter what happens to NASA, people are going to continue to travel to space, one way or another. Visionaries will always seek to slip the surly bonds of earth, because it's innate in the species to strive, to seek, to find -- and not to yield.

NASA or no NASA, entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk , Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson all have big plans for space. Just on Thursday, director Ron "Apollo 13" Howard announced a space-based reality TV show for Fox TV, set to blast off in the Summer of 2006.

And let's face it: space is cool. There are things to see -- such as an ice lake on Mars, or a 10th planet orbiting the sun -- that will restore the sense of wonder to mankind, the sense that there's a greater purpose than just hoarding and sleeping and feeding here on earth.

But if coolness is the "carrot" that should draw us out into space, the danger posed by other countries should be the "stick" that makes us want to get there firstest, with the mostest. Space is indeed the high strategic frontier, and it would be disastrous to cede such "astro-turf" to a military rival.

The Chinese, for example, now realize that they committed the biggest single blunder of the second millennium when they abandoned overseas exploration in the 15th Century. And they are not going to repeat that mistake in the third millennium -- even as they no doubt hope that we will fall prey to our fears and shrink back from Destiny and Greatness.

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, there's another "stick" to think about -- the need to preserve human freedom. Oftentimes, liberty consists of having another place to go. That's the story of most people who live in this country; our ancestors came here looking for unfettered freedom and opportunity, and they found it.

Yet America might not always be the Land of the Free. And so the best way to preserve freedom is to expand the empire of liberty in as many directions as possible -- especially upward. That was the argument made by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the novel that made famous the phrase, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

But the author's ultimate point was deeper: he wanted to warn us that the dead hand of government will always encroach on any given patch of territory -- and so the key to freedom is for free people to stay one step ahead of the encroachers. Because in all cases, in all times, in all places, "Like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master." And so, to drill that point home, Heinlein offered a future "Luna Revolution" as a needed update of the original American Revolution.

Yet for the time being, Americans just want the Discovery crew to come back safely. But insofar as the human prospect -- enjoying the carrots, avoiding the sticks -- depends on the success of the space program, we can see that the future of humanity rests with those astronauts and all those in their mold, here in the US and around this ever more crowded and dangerous globe.

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