Like the perennial quest for a “Star Wars” antimissile system, the space shuttle has never been an entirely rational program. At heart, after decades of debate about cost effectiveness and safety, it is a litmus-test expression of faith for its many supporters. That it also happens to be a major meal ticket for the aerospace industry–a profitable child of the cold war that cannot exist without steady government spending on military and “civilian” hardware (which are inseparable)–means that all Americans are on board for every launch whether they believe in it or not.
One salient point on which debate ought to be over by now, because public records are chock-full of conclusive legal and legislative evidence, is that the aerospace-government complex that makes the shuttle possible is prone to profound errors of both technical and financial scope. After the Apollo 1 fire killed three astronauts during a ground test in January 1967, NASA managers and North American Aviation executives scrambled to blame each other for filling the capsule with pure, exceedingly flammable oxygen. After the Challenger disaster killed seven more in January 1986, NASA engaged in a similar fracas with Morton Thiokol over the shuttle’s leaky solid-rocket boosters. Now, in anticipation of huge liability awards, the value of shares in several major aerospace companies has plummeted.
At least on this civilian side of the business, the public can hope to see eventually a bit of what went wrong behind bureaucratic curtains. On the military side, secrecy blankets technical errors and old-fashioned financial fraud among the colonels and the contractors. There is no shortage of experts from inside and outside government who appear year after year before Congress to warn about how dangerous the shuttle is, about what a fiscal quagmire it is, about how the juncture between public and private interest is inherently laced with conflict. One need only consider that NASA was planning to send another schoolteacher up on the shuttle this year (though nothing about the basic risks of the system had changed in the seventeen years since they lost Christa McAuliffe) to understand that these respectful critics are routinely ignored.
Simply put, the shuttle is a killer. So are airplanes and automobiles, yes, but at nowhere near the rate of this machine. It may or may not have been a noble experiment, but there is no doubt that it would never have been built in the first place if engineers and politicians had honestly contemplated the prospect that it might slaughter its passengers every fifty or so rides. No disrespect is paid to the astronauts, their families or anyone else in the history of space flight by broaching this. The “right stuff” now consists of the courage to admit that the shuttle was a mistake and that unmanned exploration of space may have to suffice for now.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who served on the Challenger investigation, wondered, “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?” in his appendix to the panel’s final report. Former Secretary of State William Rogers, who chaired that inquiry, later called Feynman an “iconoclast” who “wasn’t a team player.” True enough, thank goodness, because it was the zany professor from Cal Tech who dared demonstrate for the TV cameras with a glass of ice water and a chunk of rubber exactly how the shuttle’s O-ring seals stiffened and failed on that frigid Florida morning. “Let us make recommendations to insure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality,” he pleaded. “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
Nature now demands that the shuttle be permanently grounded.