Friday Link

The flight surgeon for NASA recollects the Challenger disaster. Her comments on the NASA corruption mirror my own thoughts on the matter.

I watched NASA cope with this disaster using a combination of denial and intellectualization/rationalization. In the months that followed, I began to realize that the Agency I had idealized for so long as being one of the best and most competent, was actually corrupt and primarily concerned with covering its own mistakes. They were an Agency caught up in hubris, who believed in their own press far too much. Instead of making the changes in the culture that had led to this catastrophe, they were only concerned with making sure everyone thought they had made the changes. The appearance was more important than the reality. I had been a general flight surgeon before, and now, for the first time, I began to look at NASA with a psychiatrist’s eyes. And what I saw disturbed me greatly. Especially in the way they handled the fact that the crew had NOT died immediately in the explosion as we all had thought, but were alive for some time as they fell into the ocean. I watched as they tried to hide that fact from the public and the families. I also watched as they carried out the motions of changing, but from the inside I saw no changes in attitude or behavior.

It has been 19 years since that cold morning changed me forever. When Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing all the crew in 2003, many of my old friends called me to tell me that I had predicted that NASA would have another preventable tragedy. I would like to think that we learned something from the space missions we have lost–Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia — but I fear that NASA has learned little.

I recall that Victor Koman’s entertaining KINGS OF THE HIGH FRONTIER opens with a similar condemnation.

Friends, the future of space flight is in the hands of private enterprise or not at all.

The State is good to mediocre at some things, like killing overseas tyrants and smashing their armies, or like training a police force to assist with after-the-fact investigation an armed citizenry to protect itself, patrolling borders, enforcing contracts, establishing a uniform commercial code. The State is mediocre to bad at other things, like maintaining common greens, highways, lighthouses, and public monuments, or rewarding our veterans. The State is really bad at other things, or downright counterproductive or monstrous, such as manipulating wages, prices and interest rates, educating the young, protecting the workingman, and, yes, opening outer space as a new frontier for exploration.

The year 2000 has come and gone. Where is the moonbase? Where is the manned flight to Mars? The science fiction writers from the 1940’s and 50’s that I read in my youth assumed space would be won as the West was won, and wrote their tales accordingly, with individuals like Richard Seaton or individuals like D.D. Harriman leading the effort. But the state and the society and the culture of the youth of these writers was not the same as after the Second World War. The era of Big Government had arrived.

I wonder what might have happened had there never been a NASA. I wonder whether the space program has been impeded more than it has been helped.