Sunday, June 10, 2007

Damage to Atlantis

As somebody who thinks that space development is particularly important to the survival of the human species, I was distressed to learn of some apparently minor damage to the Space Shuttle Atlantis on launch Friday.

The damage is to the tail section - where temperatures do not get very high and where there is little risk to the rest of Atlantis.

I like the idea that NASA may get to test some of its repair procedures. There are advantages to doing this now so that there will be more experience in case of a more serious need.

However, this problem points to the boondoggle that the Space Shuttle Program has been for the last 30 years. NASA, with billions of dollars to spend, clearly did not create a cost-efficient program. There are way too many things that can go wrong, particularly given the amount of money involved. A simpler system would have been been more cost efficient.

The reason for this is because the Shuttle was not built for scientific purposes. It was built for political purposes - for more than 500 politicians to satisfy the interests of special interests groups in a way that they could sell to the public. For what the Shuttle was designed to do (funnel money to campaign contributors), it has been an immensely successful program. The same can be said about the International Space Station.

However, to a person interested in other things (e.g., developing space as a way to protect the human species from extinction), these programs have done more harm than good.

I fear that Bush's plan to return to the moon will be just as much of a drain on the coffers with little to show for it. I continue to argue for an alternative system that will move, to some extent, control of space development out of the hands of politicians and lobbyists and into the hands of entrepreneurs. This is for a system of space prizes where the government hands out cash awards to whomever can accomplish important landmarks.

Either way, in the full knowledge that a safe return requires the use of reason and that prayer is a useless balm in these types of situations, I will give my endorsement to NASA doing what it needs to reason through to a safe conclusion.

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