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Sadly, though not surprisingly, this page has picked up a lot more traffic in the last few days. For what it's worth, I feel compelled to point out that the folks at NASA managed to keep their shuttles flying accident-free for nearly seven years after the dire predictions I made here (which is more than I can say for most of the links in this article). I publicly apologized to NASA when I re-ran this story last April, and discussed who I think is really to blame for the loss of Columbia in the weblog last Sunday. You're welcome to read my pseudonymous younger self's glib patter below, but for something that rings a bit truer to me today, I encourage you to check out the wiki's Photos from the Space Shuttle Columbia. Thanks.

-- John Callender, February 3, 2003

Monday, March 18, 1996

Go at Throttle-Up

NASA leadership is piloting the shuttle program toward a cataclysmic finish

The recent survey in which a bunch of college students were asked to identify the most memorable historic event of their lives was a study in generational cluelessness. Not on the part of the students, but on the part of the aging yuppie professor who conducted the survey. True to his birthright, he offered such self-referential choices as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The slackers ignored the bait, though, and instead opted overwhelmingly for a write-in candidate that wasn't even on the ballot:

The day the shuttle blew up.

It would never occur to a baby-boomer that anything associated with the shuttle could have historical significance. Having lived through the heady excitement of real history-makers like Mercury and Apollo, boomers see the shuttle as an afterthought, an unglamorous eighteen-wheeler hauling satellites to and from orbit.

But for those who can't remember where they were (since they actually weren't yet) when the first transmission crackled in from Tranquillity Base, the shuttle comes off as pretty damn cool. And when an actual teacher was slated to ride it into space, the excitement built to a fever pitch. A nation of impressionable schoolchildren watched the Challenger lift off, and the lesson they learned when it disappeared into that fireball has stayed with them ever since. They may have forgotten such arcana as how to find the area of a triangle or who it was who delivered the Gettysburg address, but they still remember two key facts drummed into them on that cold January morning:

1. The world is falling apart.

2. The grownups can't save you.


As the children of that era have grown up there has been much hand-wringing from the older generation about their alienation and lack of ambition. But those elders, whose own upbringing in the 50s and 60s gave them naively optimistic views about the power of technology and the virtue of seeking impossible dreams, could learn a thing or two from the world-weary cynics of Generation X.

In particular, the people currently running NASA would benefit from such lessons. In the interest of preserving their cushy jobs against the budget busters on Capitol Hill, folks like NASA Administrator Dan Goldin have been working overtime to recreate the conditions that led to the loss of the Challenger.

The end-result of this hubris is depressingly predictable. There will be another shuttle disaster. It's impossible to say exactly what form it will take or when it will happen, but when it does another crew will almost certainly die.

I suppose there's a minuscule chance that a combination of skill, training, adrenaline, and (mostly) good luck will save them, but I wouldn't bet on it. The actions that will decide the fate of that crew have been played out already (just like they were played out last time), in staff meetings and memo exchanges at places like Johnson and Kennedy and Langley. The grizzled veterans who know what it feels like to get good people killed have made their case, and lost. Some of them have quit their jobs rather than be part of what they see happening. Others are hanging on, hoping for the best, hoping things will get better.

They won't. Things will get progressively worse until disaster strikes. After that, the self-preservation instinct will kick into high gear for the authors of this latest failure, and there will be the inevitable laying of blame and disavowing of knowledge and offering up of sacrificial mid-level managers. There will be a blue-ribbon commission and a report and recommendations. There will be spin control. There will be lies.

Only this time it won't work.

Forced to answer to a cost-conscious electorate as to just what it is the space shuttle is supposed to do, NASA will finally be forced to admit the obvious: It doesn't do much of anything. That is, it doesn't do anything that can't be done cheaper, more effectively, and safer by using any one of a number of alternatives.

At that point, in the absence of an image-conscious Gipper to brush away tears at the memorial and rally us behind the idea of continuing the program as a tribute to the fallen, the plug will finally be pulled. Bye bye shuttle. Make sure your resumes are up to date, you slipstick pushers and rocket jockeys.


The space shuttle was the last great boondoggle of the big-government era. It was a tribute to the days of JFK and Johnson and Nixon, a chance for politicians to bask a little longer in the reflected glory of space-faring heroes despite the post-Apollo wind-down.

It was also a way to keep the people at NASA from having to get real jobs. A feel-good alternative to military spending. White-collar welfare. The Space Engineers and Astronauts Full-Employment Act of 1972 (and 73, and 74, and 75...).

As originally conceived, the shuttle was going to be the necessary first step in a grand, romantic endeavor: a manned mission to Mars. The Mars ship, you see, would have to be huge, which meant it would have to be built in orbit, which meant you'd have to build a space station first, which meant you'd have to have a shuttle to get to and from the space station.

Only it didn't work out that way.

In order to sell the shuttle, NASA lied shamelessly about things like how much it would cost and how many missions it would be able to fly and how reliable it would be. As the vision was converted into reality, more and more of it had to be pruned away, until we were left with what we have today: no Mars mission, no space station, and an expensive, cantankerous white elephant of a vehicle that offers a high-risk ticket to a place no one has any particular interest in going.

The space shuttle represents the worst of both worlds: 1970s vision (and technology) at 1990s prices.


It's ironic that the upcoming death of the shuttle program at the hands of the "BetterFasterCheaper" crowd may actually turn out to be just the thing we need to finally make that in-person visit to Mars. Some clever folks, you see, have come up with a way to actually get there (without relying on shuttles or space stations, as it turns out), but no one is seriously considering putting any money into the venture as long as the NASA bureaucracy is still doing CPR on the corpse of the shuttle/space station concept.

Let the shuttle and space station die, though, and all of a sudden the cost of a hail-Mary mission to Mars doesn't look so daunting.

It's a thought, anyway.

And spare me the "science needs should come first" crap, okay? Just how many multi-billion-dollar pure-science projects do you expect the public to foot the bill for, especially when you propeller-heads keep forgetting to put the batteries in the right way, or something, such that the damn thing gives fuzzy pictures or downloads its data at 40 baud or just goes fwap! and disappears without a trace? You wanna play Mr. Wizard with the atmosphere on Titan? Fine. Pay for it with your allowance. If you want a man-sized chunk of my tax dollars, though, you're gonna have to deliver some Buck Rogers. I'm talking flag-plantings. Get it?


Anyway, today's NASA is a long way from delivering that kind of red meat. Like all bureauracracies, it is institutionally incapable of admitting error. Goldin & Co. are too busy polishing this year's version of the Strategic Plan, a document that will no doubt set new standards for clarity, style, and lack of substance.

Once upon a time NASA had a simple, objectively measurable mission: Land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the ball drops on 1/1/70. No bullshit, no PR; just shut up and get the job done. And the bastards actually pulled it off. Who would have thought?

No way could that happen today. NASA as an organization, and the shuttle program in particular, is old, sick, and doomed. It's just a matter of time. Which in many ways is a shame, because taken individually the people at NASA are a great bunch of folks who have dreams and kids and car payments just like everybody else.

But don't despair, NASA people. The real world can seem pretty scary, especially when you've been sucking on the government teat for your entire professional career, but you've got an ace in the hole.

You people are the slickest goddamn webmasters I've ever seen.

The NASA web space simply blows away everything else in the .gov domain. And it's not just the quality. It's the quantity. Jeez; you guys are like an army of medieval monks embellishing manuscripts. Who needs back-end database integration? Give me a room full of NASA websmiths and I'll build whole worlds on the web - and make them compelling.

Have you checked the growth rate on .com-domain web hosts lately? The private sector is dying for the kind of cutting-edge web skill you've been perfecting.

Everyone knows it doesn't take a rocket scientist to write good HTML. But from what I've seen at NASA it sure doesn't hurt.

True, it's not nearly as glamorous as all that "to boldy go" stuff. But hey, it's a living.

Perfect Tommy

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