Shuttle Docks, Avoids Foamy End (for now)


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.


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?