End of Final Shuttle Mission Yields Bitter Commentary
|This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. (Courtesy: http://www.nasa.gov)|
ox News has gained plenty of notoriety for injecting inflammatory rhetoric into its news coverage in recent years, but after seeing this recent video on the heels of watching coverage of Atlantis’ return to Earth at the end of the final shuttle mission, it seems the aim here is to turn the event into yet another political football. The claim being that, unlike Kennedy, Obama is ending manned spaceflight in the U.S. to save money. But, as is almost always the case where Fox commentary is concerned, there’s really more to the story.
What the authors of hundreds of Twitter messages that seem to be absorbing Fox’s take have missed is that the move is part of a larger plan to share the glory of (and hopes of profit in) with commercial entities. Already it’s hoped that by the end of 2011 and certainly during 2012, unmanned commercial flights will take on resupply missions to the space station, with manned flights by the end of 2013. An 18-24 month pause in manned spaceflight doesn’t seem like “an end” of any sort to me…
Still, one needs to concede that were the U.S. not sinking into a financial abyss at the moment, there’d likely not be any particular will to end shuttle flights during the hand-off to commercial enterprise; regardless of the arguments about how NASA’s presence in the open market would have made commercial manned spaceflight much less viable. But SpaceX has already demonstrated that, flying an unmanned empty capsule aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, it and other companies are today much closer to having the capability to take over from NASA because of the decision to take it to the private sector. NASA provided funding for some of SpaceX’s efforts as it is doing for 4 other companies which stand close to getting their own spacecraft off the ground.
In fact, I’ve seen a similar move before by government agencies with respect to privatization of previous government monopolies. At the dawn of the Internet era, there was only a single ISP in Winnipeg, Manitoba (my home city). A fellow named Bill Reid who directed the University of Manitoba’s (U of M) Computer Services department made a decision to take the Internet private. Why wasn’t business doing this on its own? Well MBNet (the ISP’s name) was offering dial-up access for free to students of the U of M and for an extremely low rate (base annual fee of $25 per account¹) which made private ISP service all but unviable. But when MBNet kicked all its users off (or almost all) one fateful day, companies like Magic Online Services (later purchased by TotalNet of Montreal) stood ready that very day to offer service to the public.
At the time, there were those that saw MBNet’s move as being unfair – many were forced to make significant changes to their networking services in a very short period of time. But at some point, stepping back was surely the right thing to do lest Winnipeg and even the province of Manitoba more generally make competition in the Internet services market a game played strictly by very large companies. (Indeed, the market’ has largely gone that way in any event, but it’s quite possible the current situation would have been much worse.) And I see the same being true for a much broader set of reasons where NASA is concerned.
Time will tell, of course — but at the very least Obama and the NASA administration shouldn’t be faulted for this effort. The U.S. is experiencing a serious financial crisis and there’s little doubt even from the decision’s detractors that the private sector can ultimately do spaceflight more cost-effectively. And at this point in history, surely that’s enough reason to make it a private concern…particularly when there exists a real possibility the U.S. won’t be able to afford manned missions on its own if steps aren’t taken to redress the crippling U.S. deficit. Steps exactly like this one. Indeed, one could well argue that this move will preserve manned spaceflight in the years ahead; and that not privatizing manned missions to space would threaten the continued ability of the U.S. to undertake such challenges. Perhaps even threaten the existence of NASA as an agency of manned exploration anywhere but in historical texts.
Hopefully in the long run, those on Twitter who’ve thus far spared the time to barely read the lead into neocon-authored editorials will eventually find time to hear the full story. Of course, there are a few other obstacles that stand in the way of that: the realization that a previous Republican administration deregulated the financial services sector and started a war with 2 countries creating a situation where decisions like this were inevitable. And I’m not sure that message will ever get the kind of reception necessary for Twitter-bound hecklers to cease their de facto campaign of complaints re #nasa.
But the taste of the last shuttle’s return to Earth would sure be less bitter for it if they did.
¹ An original document containing MBNet’s fee structure was located while doing research from this story. Based on my memory of extensive prior MBNet usage, I can testify its authenticity.