This is a rant. If you are looking for genuine insight on how things went wrong this week in America’s unmanned and under-funded space efforts, there are a lot better places to look.
A short inventory of a bad week:
The Antares rocket was deliberately destroyed by NASA safety officers on Tuesday night after it became clear the launch was headed toward catastrophic failure. It was a privately financed, NASA-contracted effort that used ancient, refurbished Soviet engines —the hardware equivalent of garage sale remainders — in an effort to send a payload to a space station operated by the Russians. And after U.S. efforts ended in a spectacular explosion, it was the Russians who flew backup. I have no jingoistic antagonism toward our partners in space, just a sense of shame that we are now hitchhikers, failed ones at that, in mankind’s collective reach for the stars
On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing one pilot and severely injuring another. Virgin’s effort was part of a less ambitious, but still bold attempt to give civilians access to suborbital space flight. I had the opportunity to spend time on Necker Island with would-be astronauts and watched the unveiling of SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave back in 2009. It was impressive to behold.
But here’s the thing about rocket science — it’s rocket science: Expensive, dangerous, fraught with peril. It is sickening to me that we as a country have folded our wings and folded our cards when it comes to all manner of flight. Never mind manned flight to Mars, we no longer have the stomach or will to get off the launch pad.
I admire the men and women who have used guile and craftiness to cobble together private efforts, but the scale of space flight requires a sense of national purpose. Only a robust nation can absorb the cost, some of it in blood, and the towering risk of leaving behind the gravitational pull of earthly constraints.
Back on earth, back in America, kids are still hungry and under-educated, people search for meaningful work at living wages and fundamental infrastructure like bridges and rail lines are failing. We have spent trillions building nations elsewhere that crater once we leave. As a country, we can’t even build trains that go fast — the rest of the developed world has — let alone ships that explore the cosmos.
So why spend money on space, which is and always had been a non-economic endeavor? In part, because we are still coasting on the achievements of the giants who came before us. We have let them down, let ourselves down, and become a country where dreams and aspirations are shrinking. We create magical devices — manufactured elsewhere — that sit in our palms and can tell us there is good pizza around the corner, but we can’t get our hands around a version of our future that unpacks the mysteries of the great beyond. America is no long that kind of place, that kind of country, that kind of ideal.
It was a shameful week, a reminder that our country’s privatized effort to crawl into space on the cheap isn’t working. Lasting scientific achievement requires public investment and public purpose on a grand scale.
The invisible hand can do many things, but it can’t launch big dreams.