Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Deep Revulsion

The popular media has been fussing all week over the issues with insulation on the space shuttle Discovery, and ever since the tragic loss of Columbia there has been increased popular, media, and political pressure to find ways to "fix" the shuttle in orbit and to make sure that this "never happens again." The alternative, or at least the result of a third shuttle tragedy would seem to be the crippling of the United States space program, or at least the government involvement in manned space exploration. I've also heard comments to the effect that the cost of building a new shuttle is prohibitive and would be a tremendous waste of tax money.

Let's look at some analogous facts.

In 1963 and in 1968, respectively, the United States lost two nuclear submarines, the U.S.S. Thresher and the U.S.S. Scorpion, to catastrophic accidents. We've also seen accidents experienced by other countries, including the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which demonstrate that nuclear submarines are machines operating under the most extreme conditions possible on Earth and that they will, from time to time, fail. There is no way to change that simple fact. Over time, devices that operate in such circumstances will demonstrate some weakness, somewhere, and the power of nature will destroy those unlucky craft.

In 1986 and 2003, respectively, the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia experienced catastrophic structural failures which led to their destruction with the loss of all crew members. We've also seen failures by other countries in their own efforts to pursue human space travel. Over time, devices that operate in those kinds of extreme conditions will also demonstrate some weakness which will lead to the destruction of those craft as well.

A nuclear submarine in today's U.S. Navy costs between 2 billion and 3 billion dollars to build. Endeavor, the last space shuttle built, cost 1.7 billion dollars. The United States government currently spends nearly a billion dollars a day maintaining our military presence in Iraq. The idea that we couldn't afford to build a new space shuttle is demonstrably absurd, and is the argument of somebody who either doesn't understand numbers with more than a few zeros very well, or that thinks the rest of us don't and hopes to take advantage of us all.

A nuclear submarine carries between one hundred and three hundred personnel, depending on the size and type of vessel. The space shuttle carries a maximum of ten. In the two American submarine disasters, a total of 228 people lost their lives. In the two space shuttle disasters, a total of 14 people lost their lives. Yet nobody seems to be all worked up about either making nuclear submarines unsinkable or stopping their use altogether.

I have yet to hear one person argue that there should be some way to exit a nuclear submarine that is a thousand feet underwater and "fix" it while it is running, yet there is a tremendous pressure to devise some way for an astronaut to go out and "fix" the spacecraft while it is orbiting around the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour, and where the slightest miscue can actually cause far more damage to the spacecraft than the danger that might be faced by a couple of pieces of stiff felt sticking out from between tiles with the fragility of styrofoam blocks.

It really seems that these days, ordinary news simply isn't enough, and the media is trying to turn a space shuttle mission into another bad Bruce Willis film so that they can gain viewers while they further misinform the public. Of course, what else can you expect from a populace in which a majority believes that biological evolution is just a pipe dream of the scientific community?

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