(The Setup: A pseudo-intellectual pinhead named Gregg Easterbrook wrote an opinion piece for Time Magazine. Easterbrook, who has in the past embarrassed himself by expressing opinions without facts to back them up, again distinguished himself by stating Shuttle flights should be halted in the wake of the Columbia disaster. As a professional Chicken Little (who are the Brookings Institute, and why did they hire this fool?), he should be pitied, not published. Herewith, my response to Slime Magazine for publishing this puffery - more proof positive that "Life is for those who cannot read, and Time is for those who cannot think.")
To the Editor:
While surfing the Internet searching for intelligent discourse on the recent unpleasantness in the Shuttle program, I instead was exposed to Gregg Easterbrook's opinions on that subject. His opinions are short-sighted, wrong-headed, ignorant, and incorrect, but he chooses to state them as fact and hide behind a pseudo-intellectual dishonesty. Let's deconstruct his tissue of lies, point-by-point, and see where he's mistaken.
The title of the article is Strike One. The Shuttle program must continue, simply because our entire space flight program is built around it. There is no "Plan B," no "space plane" ready to carry passengers efficiently to orbit. Due to attacks on NASA's funding from politicians intent on grabbing pork-barrel dollars for minor states that already receive tax dollars far in excess of their needs or payment into the system, all such programs were cut in favor of "social programs" which bind the poverty-stricken hand and foot in chains of economic slavery. If something needs stopped, let's start there.
The subtitle (Strike Two) states the Shuttle is "costly, outmoded, impractical and...deadly." Costly? What cost dreams? How many billions of dollars' worth of benefit does everybody on the planet gain from the research done on almost every flight? How much security is added each time the crews launch another weather or surveillance satellite? The list of benefits far outweighs the costs, but we can't expect the short-sighted to recognize that fact, especially when trying to "prove" a nonexistent "fact" (which is most often their own opinion, draped in the mantle of pseudo-intellectual dishonesty).
Outmoded? Hardly. The Shuttle does useful work every time it lifts off, work that simply can't be done with unmanned rockets. For example, it's highly unlikely the Hubble Space Telescope would have been successfully repaired without the Shuttle -- mostly because it was originally placed in orbit by the Shuttle! Only highly-trained humans with tools in hand could have repaired the Hubble on-site, just as only the Shuttle could have delivered it to that orbit unbroken and (marginally) functional. Continuing missions give us the opportunity to extend the life of this basic research tool, spreading the initial investment over more years, lowering the cost for each new discovery. Disposable rockets and non-existent "space planes" cannot fill that role.
Impractical? Again, the Shuttle's mission record speaks for itself. It is the only practical spacecraft on the planet, specifically because it is reusable. Again, a recyclable spacecraft is far more cost-effective than a one-use spacecraft, as anybody who separates recyclable aluminum cans and bottles from household refuse can immediately grasp. And as Easterbrook points out, single-use rockets can and do fail. Rocketry is, despite our best efforts, not an exact science. As any kid who's ever launched an Estes rocket from their back yard can tell you, Murphy was almost certainly a rocket scientist. They can also tell you that solid rocket boosters are molded from an explosive mixture, which is then induced to burn in a controlled fashion. Sometimes it doesn't. Our astronauts know that fact, and accept it as part of the cost of adding new knowledge to Mankind's store of information. Theirs is a noble cause, and should be applauded, rather than denigrated by those less qualified to comment.
Deadly? More people died in a commuter train accident a mile from my front door last year than in Columbia's unfortunate breakup. We won't even begin counting the lives snuffed out in train, bus, and automobile accidents each year. Even walking across the street in large urban areas is deadlier than Shuttle flight. Oddly enough, nobody's calling for public transit to be stopped. Perhaps it's time.
Let's discuss Easterbrook's comments on the United Space Alliance (Strike Three -- he's OUT!). Many companies have joint ventures (the General Motors/Toyota partnership that produces the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix comes immediately to mind), and these are not seen as "Orwellian." Once again, a poor choice of words (we'll be gracious and assume it's not a deliberate attempt to mislead and malign) misstates the purpose of this organization and its role in the continued operation of the Shuttles. Warehousing spare parts and other logistical endeavors are hardly the stuff of shadowy quasi-governmental agencies. Also, consider the fact that the disposable rockets that would be the supposed replacements for the Shuttle missions are manufactured by the same two companies listed -- Boeing and Lockheed-Martin -- and you begin to realize they have no vested interest in any given launch platform. No matter what platform, they still profit. So much for shadowy economic forces pulling strings behind the scenes.
Easterbrook's maunderings continue in the same vein throughout this ill-conceived and wholly contrived tribute to pseudo-intellectual dishonesty. Proof of this is in his statement about the 8086 chips originally used in the Shuttle's main computers. His statement that teenagers wouldn't use such chips for video games is disproven by the use of a similar chip in Nintendo's GameBoy handheld systems, used by teens worldwide. Yes, the Shuttle was built on 70's technology conceived in the 60's, because that is what was available at the time, but it still continues to do the job safely and effectively. Casting aspersions on the technology won't bring these seven astronauts back, nor will it focus attention on what should be Easterbrook's stated goal: funding and development of a Space Plane that can take off, fly to orbit, and land on its own power. In denigrating a working system to make a point, he seems to have failed to make that point.
To the best of my knowledge, the last words heard from Columbia were, "Roger that," in response to Mission Control's acknowledgement of a report of anomalous readings. We now know they could not have inspected Columbia's fuselage or wings in search of possible damage while in space. We also know it would have been unlikely that they could have rendezvoused with the incredibly expensive and incredibly necessary International Space Station to await rescue. Their only course was the one they took, knowing the risks and calmly accepting them. I would not deign to second-guess the decisions made by Mission Control or the crew of Columbia, nor would I attempt to cheapen or belittle their sacrifice by attempting to reap ill-advised political capital from a tragedy that touched and affected all of us so deeply. Shame on Easterbrook for writing it, and shame on Time for giving this man a forum.
To be blunt, I don't think Time has the guts to print this. If they do, Easterbrook will no doubt be given the opportunity for a self-serving response in one of those tersely turgid little blurbs often shown in italic print after a Letter to the Editor. Theirs is the bully pulpit, and they can print whatever they please, no matter how ill-advised or simply wrong. As one wag put it, "Freedom of the Press is for those who own the presses." Print as you will, sirs, and be damned.
-- Duke Walls
Yorba Linda, CA USA
Naturally, they did not print it. Remember, "Life is for those who cannot read, and Time is for those who cannot think." Goes for their editors, too.
(The setup: Slate is an online magazine owned by Microsoft. Among the other reasons that Microsoft should be removed from the planet, preferably by nuclear strike, this so-called publication is self-consciously liberal, and self-congratulatorially precious more often than not. One perfect example: one of their soi-disant writers asks, "Should astronauts be heroes?")
Typical. A writer with little or no knowledge of science Holds Forth And Discourses On Light, and completely misses the point. If anybody needs to ask if astronauts should be heroes (much less why), they should immediately go and have a vasectomy or tubal ligation before they reproduce such arrogant stupidity. In a world where multi-million-dollar sports stars act like spoiled children and rock stars flaunt their anti-social behaviors, we need a few clean-cut, upstanding people to show the way. Our astronauts are literally our best and brightest, and it's about time we started pointing them out as a high point of our society, an impossibly high standard that should be the recognized apex of achievement in life. To serve others by putting your life on the line is noble, which is why we respect and admire cops and firefighters, but to do so for knowledge and science is doubly so. Denigrating that standard without understanding it is the mark of pseudo-intellectual dishonesty. To wit: your statement that we've lost 22 in spaceflight is incorrect. A T-38 is a two-seat training aircraft, and is decidedly atmospheric, as was the demise of the poor gent who perished in a commercial transport. The X-15 was a rocket plane that went near space, but was still atmospheric. And finally, Apollo 1 was still on the ground when the fire occurred that took three lives. Even including the three taken in the flash-fire, that's only 17. I'll assume you didn't know the difference, rather than believe you would exaggerate in an attempt to distort the truth. No, the Shuttle is as safe as anything sitting on 20,000 tons of hydrazine rocket fuel can be, but accidents happen. These people risk their lives to make our lives better, and that deserves a little time up on a pedestal. They are my heroes, and should be yours, too.
(The Setup: A fellow asks, "How many commuter rail projects will this [continuing Shuttle flights] cost? How many school lunches?")
Funny you should mention commuter rail. About a mile from my front door, we lost 31 intrepid souls last year when two trains ran together. By the standard statistical malarkey beloved of politicians, since train travel is at least four times as dangerous as Shuttle flights, we should immediately cancel all funding for commuter trains and apply the funding to NASA. And, since "bread and circuses" was a proximate cause of the fall of Rome, I would recommend we immediately do away with school lunches as well, in order to avoid a similar fate. Seriously, what started out as a discussion of the definition of the word "hero" has devolved into an often-scatological commentary on politics and government. Since we all know that politicians are most interested in pork barrel, pandering to the lowest common denominator in search of votes, and screwing the public in search of ways to benefit themselves at our collective expense, I personally believe (opinion alert! opinion alert!) that we should throw all the rascals out and start over. Of course, we'd just get more rascals in to replace them, but at least that set might have a better idea of how to design a welfare state so it doesn't grow uncontrollably and drown in its own waste products (sort of like yeast does in beer). Me, I hope to be long gone to another home somewhere among the stars by the time the "yeasties" drown in their own sewage, so I'm all for massively increased funding for NASA. But what the hey -- I understand some people *like* beer.