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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 compliment instead.

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 planet.

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 totally unreachable.

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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