John Glenn's Upcoming Space Shuttle Mission Contrasts the Old, Rational NASA Versus Today's Politicized Version
In NASA's heyday, some three decades ago, the American public took for granted that space exploration would steadily progress. Lunar colonies and interplanetary flights, people believed, were only a matter of time. Today, however, the general attitude toward NASA has changed to one of pessimism and indifference.
John Glenn is a perfect symbol of that shift. When he became the first American to orbit Earth, NASA's horizons seemed to be limitless. Today, he goes into the same low-earth orbit he helped pioneer 36 years ago. But this time he goes in a public-relations stunt for a NASA that no longer excites the imagination and no longer has a challenging future.
Why has America's space program fallen from moon shots to malaise? Because NASA has gone from an organization ruled by the concerns of science and engineering to one dominated by the concerns of politics.
The liberals began complaining: "If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we feed the hungry, care for the elderly, etc.?" Moreover, the successes of NASA undermined the liberals' philosophic message. How were they to convince Americans that the individual is a helpless victim, requiring constant nurturing by the government, when the nightly news showed man walking on the moon?
The astronauts had to be brought down from the moon--figuratively and literally--to serve the agenda of the Great Society. NASA gradually became just another cog in the welfare-state machinery. The manned space program has now been transformed into what is essentially a foreign-aid program.
The Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy is so massive that the United Nations building could fit through any one of its four hangar doors onto its eight-acre shop floor. NASA constructed it to enable America to go into space--alone. But NASA's flagship project today is the International Space Station.
Its original name was "Space Station Freedom," but the Clinton administration, unwilling to offend any of its fifteen "partner-nations," has steadfastly refused to rename it. Except that it added the adjective "International" to destroy any notion that this is an America-led project. (Even an innocuous, temporary moniker given by NASA engineers, "Alpha," was scrapped because the Russians chafed at a name that hinted at America's pride at being first at anything.)
In keeping with the subordination of engineering to politics, the American and Russian space programs are now joined at the hip. Later this year the first piece of the International Space Station will be launched by the Russians. They have been given critical responsibility for the station's attitude control and propulsion, making the Russians indispensable. Should they renege on their end, as they have repeatedly threatened to do unless given ever-more U.S. tax dollars, the entire program will be jeopardized.
What was the rationale for giving Russia such a vital role in the space station program? It was supposed to be a "gesture of friendship" toward a former enemy to enhance "global harmony." It also served the political purpose of sending welfare to the Russian economy--which is collapsing anyway. It was also a subtle bribe to Russia, to keep it from arming India--which has since gone nuclear anyway.
NASA's flight rules list the three worst possible emergencies on a spacecraft: an onboard fire, an internal hazardous chemical leak and a cabin depressurization. During last year's joint Shuttle-Mir venture, American astronauts had to face all three. This was a result of the suspension of NASA's safety standards--in the name of "social cooperation" with the Russians.
John Glenn may be the last hero ever to carry NASA's banner into space. It is sad to note--as another sign of NASA's decline--that when Glenn was originally selected to go into space, it was to advance science and engineering and because he was a brilliant test pilot. Today, his selection is based on political patronage.
His voyage may once again spark public interest, but it will be NASA's swan song. After Glenn's short flight, all NASA has left is the space station. Once it is built, the agency has no serious plans for further exploration.
As long as NASA remains a government entity, it will continue to deteriorate. The only hope lies in commercial, non-political sponsorship--which is, in fact, quietly growing (and is how space exploration should have been launched from the start).
Whoever does go back to the moon will be led not by politicians and bureaucrats, but by visionaries and entrepreneurs. I just hope I'm around to work on such a mission.
Johannes M. Hacker, an aerospace engineer specializing in space flight operations, worked for four years as a space station flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.