the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 February 4


The 1986 Challenger explosion was the first of those famous historical events in my life where it was supposed at the time that I (and everyone else) would always remember where I was, à la Kennedy assassination; and perhaps because the notion was mentioned at the time, I did (I was walking east past the main office of West Lafayette High School, in case you are one of the people who doesn’t remember where I was). The same holds for 2001 September 11, of course, and, not that I really think it counts, the death of Diana Spencer. Only September 11 really changed my world; though the Challenger explosion, like the destruction of the World Trade Center, did seem to gainsay the national sense of invincibility that is so characteristic of Yankeedom.

In contrast, the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia was, I believe, utterly insignificant, and I only wish that it would change my world, but fear that it will ultimately be made to serve our national sense of invincibility, as well as a number of other unfortunate traits. Many patriots are currently shaking their fists at the heavens and vowing not to be defeated. Families are saying that their dead loved ones would want us to continue this “bold” mission. Hundreds of volunteers have flooded eastern Texas, looking for shuttle and body parts, and hoping for some vicarious romance of the stars.

I am not exactly sure what to call this, beyond a disintegration. It was unfortunate, as loss of life generally is, though it was not remarkable as a loss of life (if seven people drove off a bridge in India, would we know about it?). It was a catastrophe for one federal program; but it was less catastrophic in general than, for example, a wholly-unremarkable flood or tropical storm or even routine deep freeze. And it seems overwrought to call it a tragedy, in either the classical or the Shakespearean sense, though there may be some truth to both of those. Shakespeare liked to write of senseless deaths, generally attributable to one or two bad decisions by one of the main characters (Romeo, for instance, directly or indirectly killed all six of those who died in his own tragedy), and especially highlighting the devastation that came from ignorance. The Greeks were, so it is thought, moralists on the hierarchical structure of the universe, and were fond of presenting the consequences of hubris, of human presumption to too high and mighty a self-conception, from which the gods would indignantly cast the mortals down, at the cost of everything good in their lives. Well, I don’t think the gods have cost us everything good in our lives; and perhaps some of the explorers and scientists who died on the Columbia would have had little patience for the idea of hubris. Good for them, if so. But though I share their defiance of any hierarchical structure to the universe, nor am I yet a victim of my own ambition.

At most, this is raising timid questions about the validity of the space shuttle as an element of the overall space program ― that it is an old idea, was presented as cheap but never was, needs to be updated or replaced with several new programs that each performs part of its functions. Obviously there are safety questions, as its failure rate is now considered to be remarkable. But less likely is the possibility that we reconsider the space program in its entirety. Certainly all the reactions I have heard so far have exhibited a religious faith in the idea of the space program.

Garry Trudeau once depicted an air force general testifying before Congress in defense of the stealth bomber in light of the end of the Cold War. After first suggesting that it was necessary for conventional bombing, and being reminded that existing aircraft already did that quite well, he offered that its primary mission would be to provide funding in the congressional districts of key committee members. Naturally he was invited to give a less-cynical justification, and managed this: “Air shows! We think it’d be cool at air shows! Except you couldn’t see it! Too fast!”

Instead of building bombers and submarines we don’t need, we could accomplish the real mission of defense contracting by giving $50,000 annually to every unemployed laborer in the constituencies of the porkmasters on the appropriations committees; at least then we would not gratuitously be lining the pockets of stockholders and executives. But somehow a meaningless job, one that wastes money and natural resources to sustain unnecessary elements of the defense industry and parasitic capitalists, is seen as more dignified than the government handout we all know it to be. The cynical line about manned space exploration is “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.” In other words, taxpayers will only pay the exorbitant cost of space exploration in general if there are astronauts that we can get romantic about. So in addition to building unnecessary bombers, our aerospace companies are building unnecessary space shuttles. Manned space flight doesn’t add anything to the very, very weak arguments in favor of space exploration; but unless we waste money on astronauts and their big toys, we won’t have the privilege of wasting money on the dubious science and technological research that Buck Rogers is supposed to get the unimaginative public excited about.

The science performed by the crew of the shuttle may be scientifically valid, but it is not valuable. In fact, it seems oriented mostly to the study of human life in null gravity, or in other words, we are in space to find out what it is like to be in space, and spending half a billion dollars per trip to find out. There are some experiments on manufacturing techniques; but despite the lessons of globalization, where we manufacture parts in one hemisphere and assemble them in the other, I doubt we are going to find space factories cost-effective any time soon, and I especially doubt that we will prove unable to live without the literally twos and twos of products that can only be manufactured in space. The supposed discovery of unexpected technological spin-offs, Teflon and Tang and the like, is a doubly-ridiculous justification, suggesting both that we couldn’t create an instant breakfast drink more cheaply without the space program, and that any endeavor is justified if it spawns technological research, an argument that might fit another war with Mexico. And the real science of the space program, done by the telescopes and the unmanned probes, is valuable, but only for pure scientific reasons, and therefore should not be a social priority. Should the government be paying for cosmology? Do we really need to know right this instant the atmosphere of the tenth moon of one of the outer planets? After Sputnik, it seemed logical to engage in scientific training and research in competition with the Russians; but even then, and definitely now, that is nothing more than nationalistic bravado. And the sexiest of the unmanned projects, the Hubble telescope, was initially a failure, like its close kin the Superconducting Supercollider. Each was a grossly-expensive overreaching by the scientific community, and each showed us that in such grandiose projects, the possibility of disqualifying error is equally grand, and so will be the fiasco.

The chief subterfuge argument in favor of the shuttle is that it is an integral part of the operation of the international space station. But the station itself has rightly been derided as existing solely to give the shuttle something to do, and any independent arguments about science and technology for the station are just as flimsy as for the shuttle. And if and when humanity is ever in a position to be serious about colonizing other planets, the station will be a piece of orbiting junk that is in the way, not an invaluable midpoint. And if we wanted to demonstrate the value of post-Cold War cooperation with the Russians, just about anything would fit the bill; if we are not up for something useful and humanitarian, we could confine ourselves to learning each other’s folk dances. As it is, the Russians cannot come close to pretending that they can afford to continue the program, and are seeking out celebrities who can (or, in the case of Lance Bass, cannot) afford to pay their way into space. So we are going to throw a lot of money to the Russians to keep the station operative, and then hurriedly relaunch our own shuttle program before anyone notices that it wasn’t really needed. There is a point to be made here about good money and bad, but I cannot quite isolate it.

Who knows? The shuttle program might have been ended already but for the dramatic repair of the Hubble telescope after its flawed launch. And everyman hero Tom Hanks portrayed another example of Homo sapiens magic in ‘Apollo 13’, underlining the belief that astronauts are consummate Americans, full of pluck and ingenuity. But somehow these gallantries don’t quite erase the memory that Christa McAuliffe died in a shallow NASA publicity stunt, whose rationale was that a civilian, and better yet a teacher, could open our eyes to the wonderment of space. But no, we’d all seen ‘Star Wars’, and it really wasn’t going to get any more exciting because a teacher told us so.

I am sure the volunteers on the search mean well; but they are not bringing anyone back to life, and their time would have been much better spent, I think, on any of a hundred other volunteer opportunities. And as the search began, the government warned the searchers not to handle anything they found due to supposed toxicity of the materials. While that might conceivably be genuine, I don’t suppose that it is regretted by the government that these warnings might deter the salvage of any of these parts for eventual sale to the Chinese.

Two days after the Columbia incident, George Bush introduced his federal budget proposal, which included borrowing a record $304 billion so that we could increase spending on defense (4%), homeland security (8%), and the space shuttle (22%), and still have borrowed enough money to give a lot of it away to affluent Republicans. (I don’t suppose the government would consider taking out a multi-billion-dollar loan on my behalf, and then paying it back? What if I promise to spend it on stimulating the economy? I’ll take the entire city of Indianapolis out to the movies.) There is no budgeting for a war with Iraq, so that will take us even further into the hole. The budget assumes that we will grow out of deficit in four years, but that sounds suspiciously familiar ― or was Bush too busy being young and irresponsible during the eighties to remember his hero Ronald Reagan being old and irresponsible?

It deserves to be a point unto itself, but it should be so obvious as not to require stating it. If the federal government wants to spend money it doesn’t have, it ought to spend that money doing something of proven and immediate value, like feeding the hungry, educating the world’s children, and eradicating disease. Even the sympathetic argument about inspiration, that we can give children reason to believe in human ability and their own, would be much more significant if we were accomplishing something inherently important. Imagine a whole generation of children growing up healthy, educated, and fed, and believing for that very reason that humans are wonderful. What if we ended poverty in our lifetimes? Wouldn’t that be something to believe in?


Original version


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