Space flight is the most dangerous activity that humans can engage in, at least as far as high-tech is concerned. Scientists make a pact with volatile chemicals and the unforgiving laws of physics to pursue the knowledge that the heavens will grant to the brave. Going up and coming down bring together unimaginable forces that, if not tamed, can destroy much more than just the lives of the crew.

With so much at stake, it would be hard to imagine that NASA would put its public relations objectives above guaranteeing a rock-solid and progressive space program but this is precisely how NASA behaves.

Yesterday, seven astronauts of STS-107 Columbia died on reentry. Seven astronauts died on the only “scientific” shuttle mission of the year. Seven astronauts died because NASA is one degree above a welfare to work program in terms of purpose and efficiency. Seven astronauts died for nothing.

The media coverage of the breakup of Columbia was ugly. In 9-11 fashion, the crash was replayed ad nauseam until around 2 p.m. EST. At this point, someone apparently changed their mind and decided to play the January 16th launch of Columbia which, no doubt, confused the hell out of people just tuning in. In 9-11 fashion, the people most eager to grab the microphone in support of the US were Israeli government officials which, no doubt, started the conspiracy theory engine. In 9-11 fashion, reporters asked loaded questions and made irresponsible, unqualified speculation to make sure that viewers didn’t change the channel. To make it the worst situation it could possibly be, the media gleefully played up the insignificant detail of debris found in Palestine, TX.

It was a bad day, overall. For NASA, a few more bad days should come their way.

NASA must be reformed. There is absolutely nothing that NASA does that cannot be done cheaper, more efficiently or better than the private sector. NASA is a bloated bureaucracy that exists only to preserve itself. Human space flight was lost as an organizational objective long ago.

The shuttle is over 22 years old. There are military combat aircraft (F-14, F-15) older than the Orbiter but with the key difference being that our old combat aircraft have a useful design that does not cost a billion dollars every time they are airborne. The cost of putting anything into orbit using the shuttle is roughly $20,000 per kilogram. That price tag includes the weight of the shuttle itself. By contrast, ordinary booster rockets can put anything into orbit at $500 per kilogram.

But, hey, this is about science. We need to spend a billion dollars per launch to find the answers to idiotic questions like “Does popcorn taste the same after being in space?”, or “Does a crystal grow the same in space as it does on earth?”

Throw in some research on hair bleach, a detailed analysis of monkey piss and the US is on the bleeding edge of establishing a human presence in space.
To date, NASA is a lame public relations project and an appalling diplomacy tool. There is absolutely no exploring going on. Astronauts fly 200 miles above the earth, putz around in cramped quarters for two weeks at a time, give thoroughly worthless interviews to the media and fly back in a 1970’s space wagon.

The crux of the tragedy is that these people did not die honorably as explorers. They were thoroughly dishonored and betrayed by NASA because NASA has dishonored and betrayed the nobility of human exploration.

Market forces, new propulsion technology and the reduction of NASA to a research-only agency can resuscitate human exploration. Bush is promoting Project Prometheus which aims to develop nuclear propulsion. Quite frankly, nuclear propulsion is a fantastic idea. Space elevators, orbital shipyards and the abandonment of the merry adventurers format of seven man shuttles in favor of multi-ship armadas. Bush should also abandon the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. That would clear the way for the military to protect economic ventures into space.

The US should abandon international corporation on space exploration with everyone except Russia. The US should take a cue from pre-colonial Spain and just issue exploration charters to groups—corporate, political, religious, etc.—that can pay rather than handle the details of the actual exploration. 500 years later in the New World, evidence abounds that the charter concept works pretty well.

Spain is still in charge of everything that matters south of Texas. The analogy works for the other colonial powerhouses as well. Power isn’t necessarily in what is controlled but rather what is influenced. The US is still in a position to dictate the future for the next thousand years if it can get rid of the necrotic monolith that will destroy its creator. There’s no shortage of vision in the realm of human exploration. There is a shortage of access to act on that vision. Change the rules from government fiat to financial capital and the urge towards space exploration will regain its respect and regain the future.

NASA has abandoned the future. The future should abandon NASA. Let the next explorers that fate chooses for death have the honor of dying as explorers.

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