Shuttle Docks, Avoids Foamy End (for now)

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The space shuttle Discovery has docked with the International Space Station. Prior to docking, the shuttle showed its belly to the station's crew to be checked for damage, after this weekend's foam-crack scare. As always with the shuttle's Carter-era technology, the good news is not anything the vehicle is actually doing, but that it has gotten up and will (we hope) get back down again. The actual mission is to resupply the space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter. (Why hasn't the ESA come up with its own designation to rival astronaut and cosmonaut? Vacuunaut maybe, or boondogglonaut, or bureaucratonaut?)

The survival of the shuttle program is directly tied to the space station project, a sad comment on the economics of NASA. The motivation isn't that there's any hope for the shuttle program, but that the United States is treaty-bound to maintain the space station project, and has no suitable alternative to the shuttle. Meanwhile, NASA remains indifferent to the only revenue center manned space travel has so far generated: tourism. This is the first flight since the Columbia disaster to carry more than two crew members.

Consider the numbers: Longtime shuttle supporter Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) has lately been bellyaching that President Bush's NASA budgets are far lower than necessary to meet his stated goals (of returning to the moon in 2002 2020 and going to Mars after that), and specifically that Congress has only disbursed $100 million toward post-Columbia recovery efforts. If the Russians can charge $20 million a pop for a ride on a far less commodious vehicle, how much could NASA charge for a ride on the shuttle? Back when Lance Bass' offer was still on the table, why didn't some ambitious NASA biz-dev type get the rest of *NSYNC to come along too, thus paying for the entire recovery effort? If Hutchison really wanted to save manned space flight, she'd stop pushing open-ended mandates and start denouncing Bush for allowing the Russians to widen the tourist gap.

Best wishes to the crew of the shuttle and the station for a safe return.

Related:

In space, ass never stays kicked: Why do the Russians seem to be doing better than us in space 40 years after Apollo 11?

Brian Doherty gave a defiant "Live long and prosper" to space exploration right after the Columbia disaster.

And right before the Columbia, I had the unfortunate timing to do a column on Challenger disaster jokes.

The journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth film The Core features a nail-biting scene where Hilary Swank has to land a shuttle in the L.A. River basin, somehow managing to avoid running over John Travolta in Grease, the Rodriguez Brothers from Repo Man, the morphing Terminator, Roy Scheider in Blue Thunder, some guy in a Volkswagen Jetta commercial, Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job, the giant ants in Them!, or any of the other stars traveling along what seems to be the busiest thoroughfare in the City of the Angels. I don't know if that's possible in real life, but if anybody could do it, I'll bet it would be Hilary Swank!

Has Gil Scott Heron's "Whitey On the Moon" lost its punch now that whitey is, in fact, no longer on the moon?

NEXT: Happy Birthday, Mr. President

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  1. …President Bush’s NASA budgets are far lower than necessary to meet his stated goals (of returning to the moon in 2002 and going to Mars after that)

    That made me chuckle a bit but I thought it was “2020” or somesuch ballpark.

  2. …President Bush’s NASA budgets are far lower than necessary to meet his stated goals (of returning to the moon in 2002 and going to Mars after that)

    That made me chuckle a bit but I thought it was “2020” or somesuch ballpark.

  3. My one quibble with an otherwise good article is that the Shuttle design was finalized in 1972 making it Nixon-era technology,

    Carter hadn’t even been elected yet when the Enterprise rolled out for it’s glide test.

  4. I hereby nominate worthynaut as what European astronauts should call themselves.

    Putting people in space is currently a phenomenal waste of money and brainpower. At least as it is done by governments. The science money could be far better put to use on more “grounded” pure science research.

    This doesn’t mean NASA has to kick the bucket. I think it’s worth it to have some infrastructure in place to avoid collisions of big meteorites and such with Earth. But beyond that the payoff is a joke. Too much watching of Star Trek in my humble opinion. And that is coming from a former diehard Trekkie.

  5. Whitey’s on the moon..darkie’s in the jungle…
    always my fault
    forever more and forever after.
    Ok with me.

  6. Space exploration/exploitation is too damned important to leave it in the hands of NASA bureaucrats. NASA’s become just another set of politicized “earmarks,” (Don’t believe me? Just look at in which Congressional districs their money gets spent…) and has lost its direction in terms of a Big Mission.

    I can’t buy that anyone seriously believes that the USA will go back to the Moon, or onward to Mars, under the NASA banner. That we managed to do so in the first place was a function of having a new agency, without the present ossification, and the perception of a competitor for the crown. These conditions no longer obtain, and never will again for NASA.

    Private space efforts might have a chance — though I’m bitterly skeptical on that front, as well. Not that the entrepreneurs are incapable of pulling it off — far from it! — but that the gov’t is getting in their way.

    Just this morning, I was reading about the efforts being funded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and the information was derived from an environmental impact statement. That’s the kind of steaming donkeyshit that’s going to keep us from seeing successful US space efforts in our lifetimes.

    Want to go into space yourself? Brush up on your Chinese. Or your Russian. Don’t count the Indians or the Japanese out either. But forget about the USA. We’re through, in this as in so many other things.

    <Sigh>

  7. Best wishes to the crew of the shuttle and the station for a safe return.

    You want the station to “return” to Earth? What kind of monster are you?

    Thank you, thank you. I’m here all week.

  8. Oh, it will, smk, it will. Just a question of when, and whether it will be a controlled de-orbit, or a catastrophic failure.

    The Space Station is the primary symptom of NASA’s malaise — built with little, if any, scientific merit, none of its goals are (so far as I can see) operational, but instead they are political, and are all accomplished here on Earth, rather than on orbit.

  9. A couple of years ago, I attended a talk by an astronaut who has worked extensively on the space station. He said that they have a hard time getting replacement computer parts because all the computers on board are 386-based, and otherwise use 20-year old hardware. Updating the computer design specifications is such a huge bureaucratic nightmare that it effectively can’t be done, and they can’t put in newer technology without changing the design specs, so they are stuck scrounging for obsolete replacement parts. He thought it was the biggest friggin joke in the world, and had pretty much lost faith in the ability of the government to conduct a space program.

  10. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) has lately been bellyaching that President Bush’s NASA budgets are far lower than necessary to meet his stated goals (of returning to the moon in 2002 and going to Mars after that)

    She’s right. We’re going to need waaaaaay more money than is budgeted if we’re going to perfect the time travel necessary to meet that goal. 🙂

  11. grylliade,

    Not really. We can spend a little money every year for a very long time in our pursuit of time travel. If the low budget adds a few tens of thousands of years, no biggie. We’ll still be able to return to the moon in 2002.

  12. I think NASA should give free shuttle rides to any Boy Band that wants to fly into space.

    The only charges should be for the return flight. “What, you don’t have $1 billion? Oh, that’s a shame.”

  13. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) has lately been bellyaching that President Bush’s NASA budgets are far lower than necessary to meet her needs to deliver porkbarrel spending to her district.

    Et voila, a demonstration of why NASA is done.

  14. He said that they have a hard time getting replacement computer parts because all the computers on board are 386-based, and otherwise use 20-year old hardware.

    I can actually speak to that, because I happen to know why. About a year after the first 486 laptops came out, NASA certed some to fly on the Shuttle. They hit orbit, plugged in their laptops, and the suckers started shutting down every 30 minutes. Luckily, they had only taken a few 486 laptops, and the rest were the 386s.

    Some IT folks checked the error messages and traced the problem down to overheating chips. Heat moves differently in zero-G (hot air doesn’t rise — it forms a bubble), and it was cooking the chips.

    Last I checked, however, station laptops were modern ones — perhaps two years old.

    As to NASA’s bueacracy, it’s a problem. But having Congress as your budgeteer and design boss is worse. Personally, I’d like to see NASA get given 5 or 10 year budgets, with firm goals from Congress. Stop jacking with their budgets and priorities each year, and see where the NASA problems are.

    ISS’s design was a nightmare. Congress changed who the partners were, how much of the work they were to get, how many people it would hold, when it had to be built by, when it had to start, OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Then bitched about cost overruns. It’s like the idiots have no idea how much money is wasted if you spend two years designing a five man station and then get told they need a 7 man station, but a third of it has to be built by Russia, and the entire powersystem by Europe, and then wonder why you don’t have anything done.

    NASA’s got plenty of problems, but you’re letting Congress off light.

  15. anon2,

    Actually, time travel would pay for itself. Just go back to the 1900s, use your knowledge of the then-future to make ridiculously lucrative investments, bet on sporting events whose outcomes you already know, and put your earnings in the account you will draw from to develop time travel in your own time.

    I’m surprised it hasn’t been done already…or has it?

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