The continent-spanning field of debris from the tragic breakup of the space shuttle Columbia had barely begun to cool before National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials promised to continue the manned space program in one form or another. (Given the already huge amounts spent on the shuttle-dependent International Space Station, this effectively means continuing the shuttle program.) President Bush assured mourners that humanity's journey into space would continue, as did House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.); public opinion polls indicated continuing strong support.
The confidence of these public assertions is encouraging. The underlying assumption, that space travel and NASA are equivalent, is not. Consider this: Since the 1986 Challenger explosion, the shuttle program has taken a stand against carrying commercial satellites into space.
This means NASA's cornerstone program has nothing to do with the most important space-related industry on this planet or any other, the only sector of space travel that has brought real benefits to you and me. (Not that this has put a crimp in the satellite industry, whose revenues topped $85 billion in 2002, according to the Satellite Industry Association.)
Private satellite companies emphasize goods and services rather than public relations. By contrast, consider some of the tasks performed on Columbia's final voyage. Not counting familiar zero-gravity tests on ants, spiders, and bees dreamed up by school kids and performed on the shuttle for P.R. purposes, the Columbia astronauts studied the effects of zero gravity on prostate cancer, produced flame balls ("the weakest forms of fire ever produced"), and examined how moss responds to light and gravity.
If these experiments were conducted by, say, the Department of the Interior or a federally funded college lab—that is, if they were removed from the heroic context of space travel—they would be scoffed at as a waste of taxpayer dollars, recited in get-a-load-of-this tones by members of Congress who enjoy criticizing obscure public science projects. Only in NASA's zero-gravity logic could expanding the base of flame ball knowledge be deemed worth risking seven lives.
NASA's commitment to manned flight might make sense were the agency still getting P.R. bang for taxpayer bucks. But even devoted space buffs long ago lost interest in the shuttle program. Until the Columbia disaster, NASA had most recently attracted public attention last fall, when Buzz Aldrin punched the bejeezus out of a heckler.
Nor is NASA even on the cutting edge of manned space travel. Ironically, the immediate threat of budget disaster has forced our former communist competitors to become more innovative with space bucks than we are. It was the Russian space program that provided tourism opportunities for idle bazillionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth.
NASA, by contrast, has delayed issuing its guidelines for civilian visits to the space station, discouraged the Russians from taking Shuttleworth, and, according to cosmonauts on the trip, gave Tito the cold shoulder during his pioneering flight. Space tourism companies complain bitterly of NASA's lack of enthusiasm for their industry. (This attitude may be changing under Sean O'Keefe, President Bush's choice as NASA administrator.)
The mind-set that space travel can be taken seriously only under government supervision is a stubborn one. It's telling that many of the most vocal advocates of continued NASA manned flights are mortified at the idea of good-time Charlies like Tito, Shuttleworth, and 'N Sync star Lance Bass soiling the heavens. But this is where the real dream of space travel lives. If, more than four decades after the Wright Brothers' maiden flight, air travel had been an iron government monopoly offering no opportunities for public participation, people of the time would have called it a colossal failure. While it's tempting to render the same verdict on space travel, there are still plenty of people who believe in its future. You just won't find them at NASA.