Just a waste of space
Engel in America
The default position of newspaper columnists is supposed
to be one of generalised omniscience, but I cannot be wholly alone in
the world if I admit that my reaction on hearing the news on Saturday
was "what space shuttle?" Apparently, its launch had been
reported on page 17 of the New York Times.
I also know that any field of endeavour that only gets attention every 17 years, when disaster strikes, is in serious trouble. In the 1960s, astronauts were heroic figures, as remote, admired and glorious as generals in the 1940s or Wall Street analysts in the 1990s. Now hardly any of us hear about them until they are dead.
This is not, as some commentators have tried to insist, because space travel has become routine, in the way that air travel has changed in a century from the Wright brothers to reading the paper instead of listening to the safety demonstration. It has become marginalised: zeolite crystals are not a recognised national priority. The indifference both reaches, and stems from, the top - a point to bear in mind when the president emotes again at the memorial service today. Bush has never before visited the space centre in Houston, even when he was governor of Texas. And his only known speech emphasising the importance of Nasa was made at a campaign stop in 2000 near Cape Canaveral. This is not blameworthy, merely indicative.
None the less, a substantial space community has continued to exist in a shadowy way, even still involving many journalists, who emerged from their 17 years of obscurity on Saturday to ask incomprehensible questions about granularity, popcorning and drag chute doors. But through the fog, it was possible to detect some contours that are very familiar indeed, and not just on this side of the Atlantic.
For the past decade, Nasa's budget has been "flat", precisely the word now being used to describe effective cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency, another non-priority. The space shuttle programme has been 92% privatised, mainly to a consortium controlled by the two great aerospace rivals, Boeing and Lockheed. Governmental oversight of the private operation has been regularly criticised as inadequate.
Nasa's head, Sean O'Keefe, is a protege of Dick Cheney, and was sent in with a mission to impose financial rigour. Safety, he has been assuring everyone since he became famous three days ago, was always the top priority. Yet after the nine-strong safety advisory panel warned last year that cutbacks imperilled the shuttles, five were dismissed and a sixth resigned in protest.
The chairman of that panel, Dr Richard Blomberg, told a congressional hearing last April that cutbacks were "planting the seeds for future danger". His warning failed even to make page 17 of the New York Times, though the Orlando Sentinel carried something.
Most telling of all, perhaps, is the anecdotal evidence. In a country where even the hospitals are usually freshly painted, visitors would report on how tatty Nasa facilities always looked, complete with "rusting pipes and crumbling concrete". It is, however, worth noting that the one coherent journalist with credible expertise on the subject, Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic, believes the problem is not corner-cutting, but pointless, politically inspired expense on useless projects, which include both the shuttle and the space station. Both these bureaucratic vices flourish in the dark.
Since America's attention is due to shift back tomorrow exactly where it was last week, it seems unlikely that anything substantive will be done. There was a cover-up after the Challenger disaster. Those interested in the future of space had better start reading the Orlando Sentinel.
They should also start hoping for a new dynamic. Americans
went to the moon for one reason: they were terrified the Russians might
get there first. A balance of power has that effect - it proves a remarkable
spur to excellence and adventure. Now if the Chinese, or the North Koreans,
or the Iraqis were just to shift their priorities a little, it would
transform the universe. Is it too late for Saddam to be diverted by
the notion of putting an Iraqi on Mars?