by Joe Shea
July 8, 2011
A FAREWELL TO SPACE
BRADENTON, Fla., July 8, 2011 -- There's lots of ways to kill a thing. You can starve it to death, or poison it. You can take away its functions, one by one or all at once. You can put a frog in a pot of cold water and turn on a burner under the pot, and it won't realize until it's way too late, if at all, that it's being boiled to death - that's killing it softly, or slowly. You can kill it all at once, as with a gunshot. You can stab it and let it bleed to death. You can feed it tiny bits of radium or mercury for a little while or lead for a long time and let it die. There's just a myriad of ways to kill - as Shakespeare had Cleopatra say in Antony & Cleopatra, "I have pursued conclusions infinite of easy ways to die." She chose an asp, as you would call a scorpion, and she pressed it to her breast.
America's journey into Space, that vastness of the myriad stars, the place beyond which we cannot see or know, is stirred in the fires of human curiosity, and kindles the hope of survival when the Planet Earth is unlivable. That may be a million years from now or, if we are struck by a large enough asteroid again, the day after tomorrow. But like the asp at Cleopatra's breast, our dreams of travel into Space begin to die in earnest today when the last flight of the last space shuttle to the orbiting International Space Station leaves Cape Canaveral for the last time. NASA, the gum-toothed agency that oversaw it, has been killed in a large variety of ways by a large variety of politicians and millions of apathetic Americans.
NASA is not without funding, even though yesterday a bill was introduced in Congress to kill the biggest project of the decade, the James Webb Telescope, and reduce already stripped-down funding for private space exploration vehicles. The telescope project, they say, wouldn't fly until eight or nine years beyond the original 2011 launch deadline and at five times its original $1.8 billion budget estimate. That's the way they kill those kinds of programs: They create a study, which creates a need, then fund a project, deliver billions in wasted dollars to the private contractors that build the program, then study it again, find it lacking and kill it. Some 7,000 jobs went away with the end of the Space Shuttle. They will do that over and over, until all the projects and the agency dies.
America is very accommodating about being robbed of its dreams. Few are killed as quickly as astronauts, who die in poorly designed space capsules and shuttles whose silicon siding flakes away or whose O-rings were approved by a Japanese quality control engineer in Utah and failed to insulate the flaming boosters from the fuel tanks. The Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2006 killed 14 astronauts and a pre-flight fire killed three more on the ground at Cape Canaveral in 1967. That's another way to kill something; to take away all its heroes, who were each among the best-trained, brightest and most able minds America ever produced. If America's 2,000 SEALS are its very best soldiers, trained at a cost of countless millions, how much more valuable - in terms of the cost of their training, not their lives - were the very few men and women of the astronaut corps?
I think that someone in Washington has a very, very bright and yet coldly cynical mind, well-concealed in patriotic sparkle, that both understands and exerts the death of American dreams on behalf of those who used to pay their price, at least to the extent they can be measured in dollars. This person finally and fatally understands that every dream of the American people, however worthy, costs money. Wars cost money. Peace costs money. Housing costs money. Welfare costs money. Space costs money - and what do we need with Space? It's not going anywhere, except on a cosmic scale as the Universe expands. It will be there when there's money to throw away on killing astronauts and picking up rocks on the Moon and dist on Mars, places where nothing and no one can ever live, that have little strategic advantage and no resources to plunder that can be returned to Earth. Who needs Space?
Somewhere lost in the reaches of time, more than a half century ago, on a 50-acre dairy farm in the countryside of Orange County, N.Y., in a big and very old farmhouse that once was grand, a young mother handed an 9-year-old boy a package from his Uncle Bob in Florida. Uncle Bob was a great guy whose real significance lay in being the father of Patty, his first cousin and the shining apple of his romantic eye. On a level more obscure to the boy, sometime around 1956, when the boy was in Mrs. Reagan's fifth grade class, Uncle Bob Roberts was chief photographer for Technicolor at the U.S. air base in Cape Canaveral. His job was to take pictures of the rockets America was then trying to send into Space. There were 30 or 40 8"x11" photos in the package, some in color and some in black and white. They showed rockets exploding in mid-air, or climbing into space, or sitting on a launch pad or atop a giant column of smoke, and represented the very first large-scale efforts of America and the Eisenhower Administration to deliver men, and one day women, into low earth orbit. The boy pored over the photos again and again, dozens of times, and then took them to school. Possessed of a generous heart, I suppose, he made a gift of them to the classroom at Monroe High School, and after that year never saw them again. I am proudly that boy, having never grown up.
In the following year, 1957, my father - not a man of science but very thoughtful about his children's education, and a career civil servant with a bright civilian future in the U.S. Air Force - took us to the New York Daily News to see a full-scale mockup of Sputnik, the low-earth orbiting satellite launched by the Russians in the first leg of the Space Race. In a way, today marks the end of that race, and as they won on the first leg but were then left behind in the race to the Moon, they are the turtles who won the race, since after today we must use their Soyuz rockets to get our astronauts to the Space Station. I was awed, and impressed that my own father was somehow on the edge of all this, caring about it, thinking about it, reading about it. Like tens of millions of Americans, he had come to share the dream.
It was a long, long time until those two experiences gelled into something more concrete. That happened when the new technology of the Internet allowed about 30 journalists and myself to start The American Reporter, the first real daily newspaper on the Internet - a publication with original news and commentary from reporters all over the world. In 1995, a fine writer with a B.A. from Caltech and a doctorate from MIT, Jeff Foust, was contributing articles on the latest developments in Space, such as a piece on Hurricane Opal delaying the Friday launch of the space shuttle Columbia. That's a lot like today, when the launch at 11:26 a.m. EST this morning may be delayed by tropical storms that hammered the Kennedy Space Station all day Thursday.
But as we filled our pages with extensive coverage of the space program, something went wrong. As best I can remember, I wrote some editorials critical of NASA that apparently led some of Jeff's sources to clam up or threaten to do so. One result was that when the Mars Lander was due to touch down on the red planet, I went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to cover it. It was tough to get past the front gate, but with my LAPD press card I managed it. A cafeteria had been appropriated for the media, but the guy who handed out credentials was nowhere to be found. He was a pretty high-ranking official, though so when someone suggested he was over in the administration building, I went there looking for him and managed to locate him just minutes before the Rover landed.
Like everyone else, he was excited and finally just caught me up with him as he joined the agency's top executives in a smallish room where a huge screen was set up to watch the landing. I was standing there beside him when the lander started to relay pictures back to Earth a minute or so later, and I saw the very first transmission from the planet Mars. I was awed and amazed, and yet I also felt a commonality with my own planet as I saw the rocks scattered about the Martian floor. Before I gave it an instant's thought, I said, "It looks just like Utah." Abruptly, everyone turned and stared, and in seconds my host had me immediately removed from the room and banished from JPL. It hurt a lot; the remark had been completely innocent, and was true; it did look like Utah.
The American Reporter, and especially Jeff, had lavished huge amounts of coverage on this and other space projects, and I knew we didn't deserve to be treated this way. That was the end of my love affair with Space, or at least NASA. No amount of apology and explanation could get me right with them again. I still accuse them of arrogance, and that's another way to kill something - eliminate those who love it most. Yet when the Challenger blew up, I was devastated; I wrote a sonnet about the brave crew and paid all the money I had to have it broadcast on the radio in their memory. One may not love NASA and yet love the dream of Space.
There's a single reason America is giving up those dreams of conquering Space in our lifetime. First, though, let me say that dream doesn't belong to NASA, but to all of us, and it's not for NASA to say it is ending, which they don't, or to say it will go forward, which they say it will. The fact is that the cold, clear mind in Washington has decided that we don't need that dream. It costs a lot of money and has so far produced nothing but cell phones and space candy, he would say. The package on STS-135 is a prototype of a robotic device called the RMR that would repower and fix satellites in orbit after they are captured in flight and taken to the ISS. It would also deliver a little more than four tons of supplies to keep the space station stocked into mid-2012; before then, two American commercial ventures, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., hope to have private rockets ready to replace the shuttle missions. To that great mind in Washington, it's just one more expense that begets others that in turn diminish his wealth. His thoughts will carry the day today, and probably tomorrow.
The great and largely unobserved issue is that beyond the commercial ventures, there is nothing on the planning board. The Moon mission started by President Bush was killed in February 2010 by President Obama while various ideas about Mars and extrasolar planets were bruited about. Those have not crystallized in the form of a plan, and the cold mind in Washington still asks, why should we have one? All ideas that cost money cost him money. The tax money that funds ideas about space come from his corporate profits, are taken from his corporate dividends, from his yachts and estates, his private plane and racetrack, his Lamborghini and Ferrari, his airlines and factories and vast farms and countless acres of timber-rich wilderness. Why toss that money into Space?
The terrible futility I feel this morning is hard to defeat. Americans go to the polls and elect people based less on what voters care about than on the very narrow issues and images that media manipulators use to elect their candidates. Thus we see Michael Dukakis, the very bright Governor of Massachusetts, driving a tank in a photo op and his career is killed. Jimmy Carter was undone by the very banks and institutions he sought to bring under control in advance of today's sub-prime disaster; his integrity and brilliance could have substantially transformed our nation's future. The same is true of John Kerry; he was killed by an image of himself parasailing that was tied in commercials to a comment that just meant he had changed his mind about a war and wanted to end it after once supporting it - and that image delivered President George W. Bush a catastrophic second term and the climax of the sub-prime crisis. A people who cannot see through that manipulation cannot be expected to see through the way our dreams, whether of owning our home or regaining our health or going to great schools, or our dream of Space exploration, have been murdered as we slept.
That 9-year-old boy of 1956 goes to bed tonight as dawn comes up at the age of 64. His photos and the Sputnik satellite shine brightly in his mind, and he still stares in awe across a plain of Mars. But how will he keep alive a dream that belongs to everyone?