The Discovery Shuttle Mission and the Future of the American Space Program

On July 1st, 2006, the Discovery shuttle mission slated to launch seven astronauts into space was scrubbed because of weather problems. Though at the time of this writing the launch has been rescheduled for the afternoon of July 2nd, the weather does not appear that it will cooperate. The United States government should certainly take this as a sign from above that wasting more money and resources on a failed space program when we are spending in massive deficits is a bad idea. With the memory of the Columbia tragedy three years ago still looming large, the delicate balance between safe flight into space and a national tragedy is tipping more towards the latter with every scrubbed launch and ignored warning.

Leading up to the Discovery mission, there were several factors that should lead any reasonable person to the conclusion that NASA’s days are numbered. One was the warning by two top agency managers that about 34 additional repairs and redesigns were needed to make future shuttle missions more safe and secure for American astronauts. Bryan O’Connor and Chris Scolese were ignored roundly by NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who felt that the concerns had been addressed in the period between Columbia and Discovery and that there were enough safeguards for the program to remain successful. But even as storm clouds stopped the launch on July 1st, there were concerns about the foam that surrounds the thrusters, which has been determined to have contributed to the Columbia crash, as well as other thruster problems that were deemed unlikely to cause problems. While the administrators and government officials were comforted by emergency plans to use the International Space Station in case of a disabled shuttle, this is certainly not comforting to the American taxpayer who wants money to remain in their pockets and the general public who don’t want to see our best and brightest harmed for a relatively useless shuttle mission.

All of this does not mean that there is no value in the exploration of space; rather, it seems that NASA’s time has run out. The government used NASA as a military weapon against the Soviet Union and it remains in a state of mind that is very much a relic of the Cold War. Nations world wide have been launching satellites and several, like China, are developing manned orbiters and shuttles in order to lay their claim to the burgeoning space travel industry. America should take the lead in privatizing space exploration, as we have already seen with entrepreneurs like Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson. Scientific endeavor allows humanity to conquer the wilderness and learn our boundaries as human beings, but the government is very bad at innovation. In order to save the future of missions to space in America, we need to trust in the free market principles that would have shut down NASA years ago and will create a more cost efficient market for the exploration of space. If NASA continues down its path of mediocrity, American space travel will be stunted for a long time.

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