I see dead media

Houston, we have a problem

Anyone who’s a serious space buff — like me — has spent the last decade getting increasingly depressed about the Space Shuttle, which is now such a howlingly useless waste of government money that it seems like something dreamed up by North Korea. Now Maciej Ceglowski has written “A Rocket to Nowhere,” a definitive indictment of the Shuttle program, as well as an excellent primer on how its design came to be, and why it makes so little sense. As you’d probably expect, military and congressional politics are to blame, but the devil’s in the details, and they’re quite interesting. As Ceglowski concludes:

In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry — the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight — the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade — on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft.

I couldn’t say it better. The Shuttle has become like a Potemkin space program, built purely for the purpose of appearing to exist. I need a stiff drink just thinking about it.

(Thanks to Jason Kottke for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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