Monday, July 17, 2006

The Billion Dollar Hamburg

If you're a private pilot, you've heard of the "hundred dollar hamburg." This is what you get when you climb into an airplane and burn a hundred dollars' worth of aviation fuel to fly to some locale to buy lunch--a hamburg. It's not about the hamburg; it's about the flying.

I just watched the Space Shuttle land. When it did, a NASA flack said, "Discovery's crew completing a 5.3 million mile mission to restore the International Space Station to an assembly-ready status and proving they can use a fifty-foot boom as a heatshield repair platform." Last night I heard Matt Drudge say the former consists of "taking out the space station's garbage." And when they were playing with the fifty-foot boom I heard it described as standing on it and jumping up and down a lot. This business about repairing the Space Shuttle heatshield is important because one Space Shuttle has been lost because a bit of foam nicked the fragile bricks that serve as the Space Shuttle heat shield. (Of course, if you didn't fly this turkey, you wouldn't have to worry about its heatshield failing.)

I've been watching Space Shuttles take off and land on TV for a quarter of a century. That's twice as long as I watched the "moonshots" on TV for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects combined. During the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects NASA was working toward an identifiable goal articulated by JFK. The accomplishments of this Space Shuttle mission is fairly typical. NASA has spent billions of dollars in low earth orbit growing soybeans and watching spiders spin webs in zero gee.

It's not as if they haven't accomplished anything in this quarter century. They've built the International Space Station.

When I was a kid, the Space Station was this spinning wheel in high orbit that served as a stopping-off point on the way to the Moon or Mars. (NASA has little more than paper studies--that they've paid millions for--to go there.) And the International Space Station? It's an unfinished tin can that circles the earth in low earth orbit doing stuff like growing soybeans and watching spiders spin webs in zero gee. It's "International" because the Russians send cosmonauts up there and we send astronauts up there. I suppose they spend all day shaking hands and toasting each other in the other-guy's language for world peace. The International Space Station must do something more significant than that, I hope they serve great hamburgers.

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