Sunday, February 02, 2003

The explosion of the space shuttle Columbia has resulted in the exhumation (by Mickey Kaus, for instance, and Andrew Sullivan) of Gregg Easterbrook's 1980 Washington Monthly article on the shuttle program. Easterbrook, with seeming prescience, pointed out a number of risks inherent in the shuttle design, including its inability to withstand either a failure of the solid rocket boosters (as in the 1986 Challenger disaster) or damage to the heat-shielding tiles that are now being considered as a possible cause of the Columbia's demise.

The article's supposed prescience is actually seriously overstated; Easterbrook was in fact merely playing the easy game of listing the known, understood risks and problems with a new technology and then snorting, "it'll never work". For example, he never mentioned anything at all about the possibility of a leaking solid rocket booster (that is, of a massive jet of flame shooting out the side of the booster, igniting the main fuel tank). Rather, he concerned himself with the more prosaic risk of a booster simply cutting out in flight. (No such failure has occurred to date.) Easterbrook also "anticipated" the extreme difficulty of maneuvering the cumbersome shuttle to a safe landing without test flights, wondered whether the main engine, which kept blowing up during test firings, could ever be made reliable, and noted "residual doubt" about whether the heat-shielding tiles "can be relied on at all." The shuttle, he wrote, is "several years behind schedule, with no imminent prospect, despite official assurances, that it will fly at all." Columbia's first launch was about a year after his article's publication.

Fortunately, Easterbrook's recent reaction to the Columbia crash avoids technical gripes and unjustified "I-told-you-so"'s, and concentrates instead on the real strength of his earlier article: its critique of the space shuttle project as a failure of science and technology policy. On these matters, Easterbrook is generally quite sensible: the space shuttle and its companion project, the space station, are far too expensive for their very limited payoffs. For commercial and military tasks such as satellite launches, disposable rockets are far cheaper and more dependable, and for scientific research, unmanned missions are much more efficient. The whole space program desperately needs to be rethought in terms of its specific goals and the most cost-effective means to achieve them, and it's almost certain that neither the shuttle nor the space station could survive such a rethinking.

The worst outcome of the Columbia tragedy would be a technical witch-hunt that seeks out the people and parts responsible for this particular failure, then metes out punishments and effects repairs, ignoring the more fundamental doubts that Easterbrook and others have raised about the entire program. Unfortunately, the path of least resistance for any journalist right now is to indulge in "unheeded warnings" blame-mongering--not to risk irritating audiences with the unsettling suggestion that the lives of seven brave astronauts may just have been wasted on a completely pointless mission.

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