12 July 2011

NASA and the Space Shuttle

Many observers, including the brilliant editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez, are lamenting the end of the shuttle program and calling it the effective end of NASA. For those who have idolized astronauts over the years, it's unbelievable and disheartening to imagine that the 'star voyagers' are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

But NASA and its contractors have nobody to blame but themselves. Relieved of the immense pressure to land on the moon by the end of the 60s, NASA became a make-work agency and just another federal sugar daddy. It took less than 10 years - with some tragic losses in the persons of Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom - to go from Project Mercury to Tranquility Base yet the shuttle program dragged on for 30 years (with its own tragedies of course).

It goes without saying that the shuttle provided diminishing returns. A good rule of thumb was that the greater the hype about a mission, the less important it really was. Fixing the Hubble was important and didn't need NASA's PR fluff. Giving out rides to foreign astronauts as party favors was quite a bit less crucial.

In the end, NASA allowed PC and PR to serve as very weak substitutes for science and progress. Where is the innovation, research and leadership that might provide a path to a new program? Ideas cost nothing yet we apparently have none to offer. Why should we reward inertia with additional funding?

NASA is an organization that has lost its vision. Here's hoping they will use the post-shuttle era to locate it again.