Karl Schroeder’s Space Shuttle send-off

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2011

Karl Schroeder is guest emcee at Charlie Stross’s rostrum while the latter is a-travellin’, which is fine news in my world – Schroeder has been quiet of late (how dare a writer I like not provide me free brainfood on a regular basis!), but when he speaks he says powerful things. Powerful things like this:

Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go–and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA’s Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. –That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.

All of which is why I’m heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I’m not going to miss you.

Me neither… though I prudently kept my opinion on the downlow yesterday, because there’s a whole lot of national identity stuff tied up with America and the Space Shuttle program, and applauding the Shuttle’s demise is like poking a bear with a sharp stick. But that bear really needs poking; so many of the laments I noticed yesterday seem to totally overlook the economic and philosophical shortcomings of the Shuttle program, interpreting it on a very basic symbolic level only.

Much in the way that some people interpret any criticism of the Israeli government as inherently anti-Semitic, criticising the Shuttle program is perceived as either anti-American or anti-space-exploration, or sometimes both at once. This irrationally defensive attitude highlights the lack of purpose that has echoed at the heart of the American space narrative for so long, like rapping your knuckles on a venerated statue and hearing the hollowness within as its worshippers gasp at your blasphemy.

When dogma is all you have left, it’s time to redefine your relationship to god.

[ For what it’s worth, I think you can have your pie and eat it; I grew up watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV, and they shaped my consciousness in a huge way; I can also appreciate the symbolic – and technological – sublimity of the Shuttle itself. But it was always more token than tool; if we’re serious about going beyond the gravity well – and I believe we should be – we need to ask ourselves why as well as how. The answer to the former will inform and qualify the answer to the latter. ]

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3 Responses to “Karl Schroeder’s Space Shuttle send-off”

  1. Chad says:

    “the lack of purpose that has echoed at the heart of the American space narrative for so long”

    I don’t think this is limited to just the space program. I think we lack an overall sense of purpose after some big accomplishments (WWII, Apollo, prosperity, end of Soviet Union). The U.S. is desperately grabbing for purpose and failing, and not knowing that we are failing.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    I hesitated to throw the net that wide, Chad, because while I feel the hollownesses in question are definitely related, I’m not sure about the causality. In other words, I’m not sure if the hollow narrative of space is symptomatic of the end-of-empire malaise, or perhaps one of the causes of it.

  3. Chad says:

    If I had to choose I would say it’s symptomatic. Though, I think a new challenge in space could, at the right time (probably not right now), cure some of the malaise.