Columns » Bob McCord

Lost in space

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Discovery and its crew of seven landed back from the space station safely last week with no trouble even though the space shuttle kept shedding small bits of foam, the kind of thing that killed 14 astronauts in the explosions of two shuttles in 1986 and 2003. Because of bad weather, Discovery had to land in California and be trucked to NASA’s home in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at a price of about $1 million. The 19,066 workers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will have no more shuttle rides until they find out what is causing the trouble. However, while they are small in number, some scientists, former astronauts and ex-NASA workers are saying that the six-year-old space station isn’t producing enough new information to make it worthwhile. They say that the two astronauts who are always left in the space station have to spend most of their time repairing and cleaning up the place rather than supplying information of the unknown world. This means that the main duty of a space shuttle is to bring 15 tons of supplies and remove 18 tons of trash. Homer Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, told the Wall Street Journal last week: “The space shuttle is a Rube Goldberg contraption that is never going to be reliable no matter how much money, time and engineering careers you throw at it.” Forty percent of NASA’s money is used to operate the space station. An editorial in the New York Times had this to say: “There seems little doubt that the station has been a disastrous misallocation of resources. It has already cost $75 billion to $80 billion by some counts, and even NASA’s own manager of the space station program has acknowledged that no one would invest that kind of money in the project today.” Robert Park, a physicist at the American Physical Society, told the Journal: “There is no experiment that has been done by the space shuttle that has made a significant difference to any field of science.” President Bush has already told NASA to stop the space shuttle in 2010, and that could mean as many as 15 more shuttle missions. Apparently the President has told this to the 15 other nations that share the space station with the United States, and it’s possible that the other countries would resent closing the station right away. However, it’s known that some of the other nations are appalled about the high costs they have to contribute to keep the station operating. The real goal of NASA is the exploration of the solar system. Experts wanted it to build a spaceship and more things like the robots it sent to Mars and the Cassinin Probe that made pictures of Saturn. Surprised that Discovery was suffering from unsolved problems that had crippled two other shuttles, Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University and the writer of “Space and the American Imagination,” said: “Gee, if we can’t go into low earth orbit, how can we beat Al Qaeda?” That caught my attention. Here we are in the midst of the most unsought war in America’s history that has taken the lives of more than 1,800 of our young men and women. Yet we are spending billions on shuttle rides but we haven’t been able to get the right kind of body armor to our soldiers. Osama bin Laden is the leader of the Muslim fighters. On Sept.11, 2001, he ordered men to capture four American passenger planes and run them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, killing more than 3,000 persons. Thousands of American soldiers have been sent to find him, but so far no one has even come close. Yet he and his aides regularly appear on television to tell us that they will kill more innocent people. Thousands of people are sneaking into the United States every day, and with the Muslim terrorism in much of the world, it is likely that terrorists are or will be among these daily illegals with the worst of intentions. Yet, our government has come up with no method to stop them. Few but not enough additional guards have been posted along our long borders. And even though the government has spent hundreds of million dollars to come up with a biometric program that would allow the instant identification of known terrorists trying to cross the borders, it doesn’t work yet. Last week the FBI told us that there was a possibility of an attack on major cities in our country around Sept.11, a sort of anniversary affair, only this one was said to be with fuel tanker trucks rather than airplanes. Overseas sources had given the word, but the FBI was a bit skeptical of its seriousness. It seems to me, however, that we ought to be more serious about that than our space station.

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