Copyright © 2002 Terry Joseph
Houston we have a problem
By Terry Joseph
Dec 15, 1999
The next time anyone tells you: "It does not take a rocket scientist
to figure this out," smile politely and accept the intended insult as a
NASA's nerds, once regarded as men of awesome and invincible intelligence,
just aren't as bright as they used to be. In fact, given their recent string
of failures, nice white conical caps, with the letter "D" painted
front and centre, might go well with their predictably red faces.
Perhaps because we live some distance away from the nearest NASA launch pad,
it doesn't worry us that, of the tens of billions of dollars the US space
programme is throwing into the sky each year, much of it is doing nothing more
than falling back down.
But they are not alone. We seem to be developing the same kind of problem with
frequent flyers, whose missions result in little more than press conferences
that bring pie-in-the-sky promises from other nebulous galaxies.
Okay, Houston, we hear you. Yes, we understand that your problem is larger and
more complex. We know that last week's disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander
is only the latest episode in a series of botched missions. After attracting
worldwide attention to its every wobble and trajectory adjustment, the rocket
scientists now cannot even find the darn thing. And we shared your concern
when the NASA bossman blithely reported the fiasco as if some Doofus merely
mislaid a bunch of keys.
Fact is, the Polar Lander actually cost $1 billion and that loss came less
than ten weeks after its vanguard mission, a similarly expensive Mars Climate
Orbiter disappeared on September 23. All this goes on, mark you, while people
are dying of hunger and frostbite in the same country that so cheerfully funds
the probing of Mars.
Of course, traditional economists and those politicians who sat on the winning
side of the table at the Seattle round of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)
conference scoff at such suggestions. You just can't go around playing Robin
Hood, they say. That would spoil things for those who had the money first or
the advantage of privileged access to it.
But clearly, there is money enough to throw away, without unduly disturbing
the rich. The problem, Houston, is that, in the American example, the excess
is being spent on things like space rockets that blow up, disappear, lose
payloads, or just fall out of the sky. Over the past 16 months alone, NASA has
presided over six significant mission failures, mishaps that resulted in
losses totalling $25 billion.
Of course, there was the tragic Challenger mission of the mid-1980s that blew
up and killed its seven-member crew. But the more recent failures have been
the most spectacular, expensive and embarrassing in NASA's 41-year history.
Roger, Houston, we read all of that.
But hold on, Houston, it is not just NASA or the US. We have a problem down
here too. It is a little different from the one at the space centre. Our
difficulty is not with failed missions, but the fact that we have too much
activity on the launch pad. The place is getting like City Gate!
Every week, there is a countdown to some senior astronaut taking off to
someplace. Some say it may simply be the smell of propulsion fuels that they
like, while others believe that it is that feeling of being on top of the
world that flight induces. In one state agency, on any working day of the
week, bet your life that half the posse will have lifted off. Flights are even
given as gifts in that place.
Houston, you would not believe the failure rate of these missions. All kinds
of astronauts and promotional and marketing agencies are claiming astonishing
results, but the reality is that, in the absence of tangible evidence, these
flights must appear to be nothing but joyrides. Of course, from some of the
trips we have received samples, but they were apparently taken from the dark
side of the moon, so we end up with little more than night-soil analysis after
just about every mission.
Now, you can't fault them on procedure. The minute they touchdown, they hold
debriefing sessions and promise all kinds of investments from other planets
and plenty rice and predict each time that there is more to come. Houston,
they act as if every lift-off should be counted as chalking up relief for the
poor, bringing investments or generating employment. They have attended every
intergalactic conference in the universe and done the grand tour of the
We also have a problem with the flight simulator, in that, those who are not
even airborne at the time behave as if they are in the stratosphere and hence
Houston, we are experiencing the same level of waste, per capita and unable to
control these missions. You have to tell us what to do. This is a Mayday
situation. Code Red. We need quick action and advice. And please, you don't
need a rocket scientist to figure this out!
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