Michael Louie


This past week marks the anniversaries of three failed attempts in space travel, what many consider to be the dark days of NASA.

On January 27, 1967 three astronauts die after a fire on Launchpad 34 in Cape Canaveral, FL during a preflight test to launch the first crewed Apollo mission. Fire spread quickly from a short circuit in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the cockpit and escape was near impossible due to numerous design factors, including a hatch that could only be opened inward with the aid of ratchets, and a higher internal pressure that required the cockpit be vented before doing so.

February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated along with its seven crew members (including the first Israeli in space) over Texas at mach 18 (about 12,500 mph) at 207,135 feet. The oldest of a fleet of four shuttles, Columbia was a doomed vessel from the start of the mission when a piece of foam from an external fuel tank damaged the left wing of the shuttle shortly after takeoff. Last words from the crew: “Roger, but…”

And on January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger split into a tangled bloom of smoke and fire approximately one minute after takeoff, taking with it seven astronauts, including a civilian (unluckily as it would turn out) chosen from a competition of 11,000. Investigators later pointed to a faulty O-Ring seal, a $900 rubber band made by Morton Thiokol, on the solid rocket booster as the cause for the disaster. The seal, engineers had warned, was unpredictable at temperatures below 51 degrees. After three cancellations the Challenger launched on schedule at a temperature of 36 degrees. Christa McAuliffe, the civilian teacher, told Life magazine in 1985, “I don’t know whether 200 miles above the earth I’m going to feel any closer to God.”

It is assumed that God just couldn’t wait those last couple hundred miles. Whose side is God on? Certainly, it could be argued, not NASA’s. The battered institution charged with the monumental task of launching cost-effective and reusable space vehicles into orbit often, from the outset, for little more than national pride and technological achievement—even though 90 percent of us can’t recall what the last successful space mission actually accomplished—has spent 20 years trying to recoup its losses from the Challenger disaster, from which many feel it never fully recovered.

There were accusations that NASA commonly cut corners to keep the shuttle program visible. Even ten years ago John Pike, then director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. said, “I’m afraid that the space program has gotten caught up in the current budget-cutting mania, and that the resources that are going to be available to [NASA] are going to be inadequate to do what it is they’re being asked to do. As a result, we are recreating the conditions of unrealistic expectations that contributed to the Challenger accident and we’re heading for another one.”

That other one would be Columbia, as Pike was so prescient in foretelling. But as it turned out, the problems were not so much trial and error as they were systemic in the institution itself. The problems with Columbia were not unknown prior to its final launch, but rather had been noted by engineers in previous flights. In Friday’s New York Times Alex Roland, a former NASA historian said, “The shuttle could never do what the agency tried to make it do, and so [NASA] traded off safety. There was enormous pressure on the managers and they just kept flying with the problem without being able to explain why it was happening.”

The shuttle also never quite became the inter-galactic space vehicle they thought it would be. Again in Friday’s Times, John M. Lodgson of the Space Institute at George Washington University suggested that exploration via the space shuttle was the wrong decision altogether: “NASA is attempting now to recover from 35 years that were in many ways a dead end. That was not NASA’s mistake, but the government’s, the national leadership’s… All along we should have been exploring and continuing the momentum of Apollo.”

Ten years ago, John Pike said something eerily similar: “The problem that you’ve got right now is that you’ve got a fairly risky vehicle in which there’s just no way to get the crew out if something goes wrong. NASA certainly knew that Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were risky, and that’s why they all had escape rockets. There’s no way to do that with this shuttle. If you could build a piloted transportation system that had an escape system back in the 1960s, I don’t know why you couldn’t build one in the future. One of the problems with the shuttle is that they built it under the assumption that it was safe and it didn’t need a robust escape system. Well, it’s turned out that they guessed wrong.”

Adding insult to injury, now the commercial sector is gearing up to give NASA yet another smack across the face. Richard Branson’s Virgin group is selling preflight reservations for their, err… virgin takeoff of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship, scheduled for 2010, which just happens to be the same year George W. Bush proposed we return men to moon. And just what the f@#! is Bush interested in space for in the first place? If anything, continued exploration of space will irrefutably disprove his Christian faith in divine creation and his ideas about evolution—which they already have to a large extent. But who cares, anyhow? It’s a pep rally for him. Rah rah rah.

The new Galactic Spaceship that’s planned to make NASA’s manned explorations pretty much obsolete is based on a model developed by Burt Rutan, of Scaled Composites, located in the Mojave. Rutan won the X-Ansari prize, a privately funded kind of “space race,” or rather “race to space,” in 2004 by launching his SpaceShipOne craft a little more than 62 miles into the sky. He collaborated with Branson to form a commercial space tourism company, whose first passengers plan to include (checking an unofficial manifest Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Moby, Robbie Williams, Sigourney Weaver and, shockingly, William Shatner. Now, I don’t know who Robbie Williams is, but I assume he’s famous, and I know for sure Sigourney Weaver and William Shatner have been to space a few times before.

So it’s true. The meek will inherit the earth and the rich and famous will ascend to heaven. But I’m not completely cynical. If I could save my millions from Fanzine and send my parents on a trip to space on a vacation of ten lifetimes I most surely would. $204,436.65 (115,000 British pounds) to reserve a seat among the stars is a mite pricey, however (but hell nobody said space travel was cheap)—contrary to what our government seems to believe (and this isn’t just directed at Bush), and it’s obvious to everyone but them that the greatest symbols of this country’s technological and national achievement of the last century are largely in shambles.

And now the government has recently outlined proposed space tourism rules, which includes legislation signed by Bush last year intended to “make the space tourism industry flourish,” apparently in part by allowing accidents to happen before the FAA can order restrictions, safety regulations for passengers and crew or impose penalties or anything of a regulatory type nature for eight years. Private business is again allowed to police itself, and currently we have, at best, celebrities’ lives at stake (although I looked at Robbie Williams’s web site and still have no clue who the hell he is). Can we allow this to happen? Let’s lay down the facts: Sigourney Weaver was great in Ghostbusters, and so was Brad Pitt in Reckless Kelly and Young Einstein (oh wait… no he wasn’t… Nevermind.) Angelina Jolie could give you two black eyes with her… and Shatner… well… I’d sooner short change Walther Matthau (which, of course, is something I’d never do, despite the fact that he’s dead) than wish Shatner ill. Oh, and I didn’t forget about Moby. It’s just that nobody cares about him.

But maybe in four years we won’t care about any of them. While we’re lounging in the warmest January in decades, they’re freezing their asses off in Russia and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Virgin Galactic Spaceship (which looks like a fat torpedo with wings—it also supposedly produces zero emissions, so if you’re like me and believe the Global Warming myth, this ostensibly will not contribute any more to it) is taking orders here.