Like the monster in some ghastly horror movie rising from the dead for the umpteenth time, the space shuttle is back on the launch pad. This grotesque, lethal white elephant -- 14 deaths in 113 flights -- is the grandest, grossest technological folly of our age. If the shuttle has any reason for existing, it is as an exceptionally clear symbol of our corrupt, sentimental, and dysfunctional political system. Its flights accomplish nothing and cost half a billion per. That, at least, is what a flight costs when the vehicle survives. If a shuttle blows up -- which, depending on whether or not you think that 35 human lives (five original launchworthy Shuttles at seven astronauts each) would be too high a price to pay for ridding the nation of an embarrassing and expensive monstrosity, is either too often or not often enough** -- then the cost, what with lost inventory, insurance payouts, and the endless subsequent investigations, is seven or eight times that.
There is no longer much pretense that shuttle flights in particular, or manned space flight in general, has any practical value. You will still occasionally hear people repeating the old NASA lines about the joys of microgravity manufacturing and insights into osteoporesis, but if you repeat these tales to a materials scientist or a physiologist, you will get peals of laughter in return. To seek a cure for osteoporesis by spending $500 million to put seven persons and 2,000 tons of equipment into earth orbit is a bit like… well, it is so extravagantly preposterous that any simile you can come up with falls flat. It is like nothing else in the annals of human folly.
Having no practical justification for squirting so much of the nation's wealth up into the stratosphere, our politicians -- those (let us charitably assume there are some) with no financial or electoral interest in the big contractor corporations who feed off the shuttle -- fall back on romantic appeals to Mankind's Destiny. Thus President Bush, addressing the nation after the Columbia tragedy two years ago:
These men and women assumed great risk in this service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth.
These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.
The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.