The Shuttle’s glory flights launched the embarrassingly flawed Hubble Space Telescope, and then sent astronauts Story Musgrove and his assistants up to repair it. Other than that, the 135 launches were used for occasional military missions, but mostly to build and service the International Space Station – originally called the “Freedom Space Station,” just like the equally short-lived Freedom Tower and Freedom Fries. I’ll wager that not one person in our county has a clue what the crew of the Space Station is doing. Do you? Can you name a single astronaut up there? Can you name or describe even one experiment that they’ve performed this year? How about in the past five years?
Then, a few years ago, former president Bush announced that we’re going back to the Moon. It took just four years for the next president to cancel the whole thing. Nowadays, Mr. Obama says that we’re eventually going to build a new rocket and land on a tiny asteroid: a concept with all the drama and thrill of a ham sandwich. Also talked about but not funded in the least: a manned mission to Mars “sometime in the 2030s” that will orbit but not land there. It’s another yawner that – count on it – will keep getting underfunded or non-funded, and postponed forever.
In short, US manned space travel is floundering big-time. Maybe that’s okay. I don’t even know what’s right, or what we should do. I only know that it’s a mess, and that nobody should believe anything that any elected official predicts in that area (or, come to think of it, in any other area either).
Of course, space blunders are not new. In 1962, the spacecraft Mariner I, bound for Venus, had to be destroyed because it strayed off course – a goof caused by the omission of a hyphen in the craft’s computer programming. This single punctuation mark cost taxpayers 18 million dollars.
Going outward in the opposite direction, the Russian spacecraft Phobos, en route to the Red Planet in 1994, blew up at the command of a programmer who sent a seriously flawed computer message. Obviously, the old saying about needing a computer to really screw things up rings just as true beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Goof-ups in space science are usually costly, often spectacular and always instructive. The archetypal botch-job – the event listed as an example when you look up “blunder” – was that Hubble Space Telescope fiasco in 1991, whose 92-inch mirror was the most precisely polished ever made – except that it was cut to the wrong shape. Never before had so many involved in the space sciences laughed and cried at the same time. The blunder’s evolution was fascinating: a one-billion-dollar snafu tied to the prestigious optical firm of Perkin-Elmer of Danbury, Connecticut, which had won the contract to produce the world’s finest mirror.
As we all know, the Hubble’s now-corrected optics continue to amaze the world with otherworldly images of such beauty and utility that its initial woes now seem mere labor pains. But still, pragmatists may wonder: If such a prestigious, high-profile project can screw up, can’t anything? Can we ever assure that future colonists signing up to live on one of the moons of Jupiter won’t meet horrible deaths because someone forgot a bolt or washer?
No one can forget the screams of the three Apollo I astronauts when a simple spark, a minor “short,” turned their pure-oxygen environment into a blinding inferno that melted their spacesuits around their bodies. To this day, people still speculate about the four-minute-long anguish of the Challenger astronauts – that handsome, winsome crew – as they fell, still conscious, into the sea; or the Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, whose craft impacted the ground at 400 miles per hour after a malfunction. Reportedly, he wept while speaking to his wife from orbit, knowing how badly things were going and the inevitable outcome that lay minutes away.
These disasters and a myriad of future foul-ups must be part of the equation, in our fascination with space exploration.