Of Space Shuttles and Pyramids

The final Space Shuttle mission ended last week, amidst calls for Washington to cut spending. The Shuttle program cost over $200bln, not to mention 14 lives, while giving little in return. Clearly a Shuttle launch was a majestic site; no one had ever assembled a machine so complicated that had to perform perfectly. Still, at over $400 million per pop, these are expensive warm-fuzzy moments.

The Shuttles’ accomplishments were few. They launched satellites that could have been delivered to orbit cheaper by unmanned rockets. They built a space station that replaced an existing station – both of which served no purpose that unmanned experiments cannot fulfill.

Similarly, the Shuttles’ failures were many. Due to basic design flaws, they twice failed, killing all on board. Their reusable design philosophy held back engineering advances for decades. The next generation of space vehicles starkly resembles the Apollo modules. Because of the political investment in a space plane, it will take forty years to return to the Apollo solution that was first and best. Imagine if the Shuttle engineers had spent the past forty years perfecting the capsule rather than patching a design that quickly proved to be deeply flawed.

All of the interesting exploration and scientific inquiry of the past thirty years has been done by robots. Pork barrel pols could have directed similar funding to unmanned missions with the same political benefits. Even professed fiscal conservatives loved the Shuttles, but why? Nationalism drives governments to create spectacles of their power, even if they are a waste of money.

Perhaps the greatest display of waste in the name of a nationalistic pride is the Egyptian Pyramids. The Pyramids served no purpose other than to demonstrate the power of Egypt’s dictators, and they wasted the labor and talents of generations of men. Likewise, the US does not need a manned space program; it serves no purpose other than to pump nationalist pride. Without the Shuttle, the talents of thousands of the US’s best minds can now be put to better purposes.

Spectacles of power do not befit the US, because at its finest, it is not a nation of nationalism. Placing a few men on the Moon pales in comparison to the US’s great accomplishments. The US invented the free individual, teaching the world that The People can rule their government, the inverse of thousands of years’ history; the US doubled life expectancy through its medical innovations; the US eliminated starvation throughout the world, except where dictators like Stalin and Mao murder their own people; the average American lives a life of greater comfort than did Egypt’s pharos. None of these accomplishments involved a central plan. None of these accomplishments came with a grandiose spectacle of government might. These accomplishments are a testament to freedom and the power of the individual, and they are inherently not nationalistic because they are open to anyone who will have them.

NASA claimed the last Shuttle launch as a symbol of a great nation. No doubt a few pharos made the same claims about their Pyramids, but that is the mindset of a central power. When the final book is written about the US, the Moon landings and NASA will surely be mentioned, but the bulk of the history will be wonderment at how a few powerless colonies transformed the world in the blink of history’s eye. To whatever extent abandoning the Space Shuttle shifts US pride away from a symbol like the Space Shuttle, and toward the US’s unique purpose, all the better.