This just in, courtesy of SoA Correpondent Vee Bloom, who sent me this article this afternoon.
It’s been a while since I wrote about NASA, mostly because absolutely nothing interesting about them has crossed my desk in the last six months, not since I found that proposal about them shooting rockets at the moon to find out if it’s full of water. If you remembered, I questioned the validity of this idea – if by validity I mean “sanity”, which I do. I was thoroughly trounced by reader Linzee who took me to school about the funding problems that have plagued NASA for years now, and I walked away a better person.
Yeah, I wouldn’t believe it either, if I were you.
Anyway, it turns out NASA is in even more dire financial straits than either Linzee or I could have begun to imagine.
You know what I always wanted? A space shuttle engine. Imagine the fun you could have with a seven thousand pound, two-million newton, Mach 5 liquid-fuel rocket booster of your own. Apart from the weight it isn’t even that big: only four and a half meters on its side. Yes, there’s the issue of finding a suitable gas tank to feed it for the requisite 480 second burn time – not even your Escalade guzzles that much propellant – but even as a standalone objet d’art rather than a functional piece of equipment, it’s more or less the ultimate addition to a space nerd’s already impressive collection of memorabilia.
Imagine the looks on the faces of all your IRC friends when they gaze upon the jaypeg you uploaded of your brand new ubermotor – of course, you’ll have to imagine the looks, won’t you, since you’ve never met them in real life because you’ve been waiting in your mother’s basement the last six months for Star Trek Online to premier its beta.
But I digress.
Me personally, I’d plop it smack-dab in the middle of my front yard (presuming I had a front yard) and just leave it there. It would be the absolute last word in lawn ornaments. It would amuse me to watch onlookers pull the double take: “Oh, Cheryl, what a lovely afternoon walk we’re having. It’s so nice to stroll arm-in-arm with – what the fuck is that?” I would also develop an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of how many minor fender benders happened in front of my place thanks to rubberneckers gawking at my gigantic space-borne distraction. And if I really wanted to monkey with people, when asked where I got it I could always say something like “oh, it just fell out of the sky one day, and nobody came to retrieve it. I think it’s from Mir” or “yeah, happens all the time – I have a Boeing jet engine out back. The name’s Darko, by the way” and just watch them skitter away down the street casting baleful glances at the empty sky like they were the Wicked Witch of the West.
But again, I digress, because of course those would be untrue statements. It wouldn’t be unfeasible to presume such an engine did, in fact, fall off a NASA space shuttle – enough of them haven’t been exactly structurally sound – but in reality I wouldn’t have to wait for it to drop from the heavens, because NASA has decided to give them away.
Let me break it down for you. The space shuttles are so far past their prime they make a Madonna video look fresh. You wouldn’t try driving a car for twenty-eight years, especially if other vehicles of the same model had a disturbing trend of exploding with relative frequency, but that’s exactly what NASA has been doing with the space shuttle program. The first operational flights started in 1982, which makes these Methuselahs of the heavens older than me. Even if you could somehow keep it on the road, would you really want to be seen cruising around your ‘hood in one of these?
Probably not, unless you’re Snoop Dogg, and then you’d trick it out with furry seats and hydraulics in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. And last time I checked, there ain’t no furry seats in the interstellar pimpmobiles NASA’s still shooting off into the sky.
To be fair, as Linzie pointed out in my last NASA-themed article, the space agency hasn’t exactly been top of the list as far as funding goes for the last couple of decades. I guess the American government thinks it’s more important to sink money into intentionally murdering other people’s scientists rather than preventing the accidental deaths of their own
In either case, as soon as the paint dries on the International Space Station, the remaining shuttle fleet is being mothballed and sold off. Shuttle Discovery has been promised to the Smithsonian Institute, who are getting exactly what it says on the package: a relic of an earlier time, but Atlantis, Endeavour and possibly the test ship Enterprise (ironically the only shuttle to not go where no one has gone before) are headed to the yard sale.
Initially NASA had hoped to attach to each orbiter the impressive price-tag of $42 million, but it seems other air- and spaceflight museums don’t have that kind of coin lying around (it’s all they can do to keep their dinosaur bone collection away from Exxon), so they dropped the going price by almost half, down to $28.8 million.
At that point, I assume, somebody in the JPL pointed out to them that a space shuttle without a launch system is pretty much a poorly-constructed airplane that requires exponentially more expensive fuel to fly (and I’m not even sure if they’re capable of taking off like regular airplanes – anybody want to clue me in on this?), so the chances of selling off the orbiters to private interests are pretty slim.
So, they took the route favoured by amateur mechanics and grease monkeys the world over, and decided to part them out. What you’d do with giant pieces of a spaceship, apart from my aforementioned suggestion, is somewhat beyond me, but you do what you must when the squirrels come knocking and you’re fresh out of nuts. Apparently NASA’s accounting department set the going price for individual engines at eight hundred grand a piece, but once again, that proved a bit too ambitious: inexplicably, nobody wanted to shell out three quarters of a million dollars for an engine they can’t very well put on the back of their Honda Civic. So they dropped the price.
That’s right: if you happen to have access to a flatbed truck, a crane and a free front yard, a space shuttle booster engine can be yours, free for the taking. WHAT A DEAL!
Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t this kind of, I don’t know, a security liability? Giving away high-end aerospace technology to whoever wants it and all? I know I made a big deal of it being out of date, but it’s still sensitive stuff, isn’t it? Despite all the hoopla about terrorist threats and teenagers building complicated bombs in their mothers’ basements and whatnot, the premier space agency in the world is just throwing in the towel and say, “Oh fuck it, the blueprints are probably on the internet anyway.” Strikes me that either a) the technology really is bad enough that they don’t care about tossing it in the trash for some wannabe Werner von Braun to reverse-engineer into some kind of Weapon Of Mass Destruction If It Gets There, or b) they are so desperate for extra cupboard space they no longer have any choice but to leave it on the curb for the vagrants to take away in their wheelie carts.
Seriously, though, this makes me really sad. I remember when I was a kid, my dad and I would watch the televised shuttle launches and it always filled me with a profound sense of awe, that people were on board, going into space. It wasn’t Star Trek, but it was the closest I figured I’d ever see in my lifetime, and it helped that the first neurologist in space, Roberta Bondar, was Canadian – it was my little bit of national pride that she and the Canadarm were integral to such an epic part in human history.
And now it’s over. I guess I could hope that the deconstruction and sale of the shuttle fleet was a representation of NASA putting away childish things and getting to work on a ship worthy of our ambitions towards interstellar exploration (please name it Enterprise), but I don’t think that’s the case. More likely we’ll see another twenty-year dry spell while the good folks at NASA do everything they can to wrangle some government dollars away from military contracts and protracted wars of attrition and towards something that might go a long way toward uniting us as a people.
But if wishes were horses, and this were France, we’d all be eating well. So in the meantime I guess all I have left to say is – anybody have a flatbed truck I can borrow?