Today most of us don't give much thought to the space shuttle - viewing it
as just one of many multibillion-dollar government expenditures offering
unknown benefits to the taxpayers. Yet not too long ago the space shuttle
was widely considered one of NASA's most remarkable advances, rivaling in
popularity other space age innovations like the zero gravity toilet and
I still recall in 1981 being corralled, along with my 7th grade classmates,
into the school library to watch the live broadcast of the Shuttle
Columbia's maiden launch. As the craft became airborne, a hush fell over the
class, unbroken until my friend Sean Doherty, reflecting the majesty and
wonder of the moment, audibly murmured, "Who gives a s**t?"
OK, so maybe not all of us were that captivated by the space shuttle. But
can you blame us? After all, my generation came of age well after man had
been to the moon. We'd witnessed the spectacle of the Millennium Falcon and
X-wing fighters battling it out with Imperial Destroyers and the Death Star
(the nerdier among us witnessed this spectacle dozens of times). Yet we were
supposed to be impressed by a NASA space ship that looked like little more
than an overfed DC-10?
The other problem is with the term "Space Shuttle," which misled many of us
into believing that that make lengthy intergalactic travel would soon be a
thing of the past.
Coworker #1: "So, what are you doing this weekend?"
Coworker #2: "Oh, Francine and I are heading out to Alpha Centauri."
Coworker #1: "Really? But isn't that a long trip?"
Coworker #2: "No, not at all, we're taking the shuttle."
Then again, who knows, maybe the shuttle does travel to the farthest reaches
of the galaxy, picking up alien life forms and, in a bit of a role reversal,
subjecting them to anal probes. Frankly, like most Americans, I have very
little idea what the shuttle's mission usually is or what the astronauts are
doing while they're up there.
As far as I can tell, a typical shuttle mission timeline goes roughly like
1. To much fanfare, a shuttle launch date is announced, and then immediately
scrapped because of anticipated weather trouble at Cape Canaveral.
2. Despite NASA meteorologists' ongoing concerns about "patchy early morning
clouds," the shuttle manages to achieve liftoff.
3. NASA officials announce that they've discovered a previously unknown
structural problem with the shuttle such as faulty t
iles, defective heat
shields or a "leaky oil pan."
4. The news media nervously report that the astronauts will attempt to
repair the shuttle's exterior with an unplanned and potentially risky
spacewalk. Luckily, the announcers add, this crew happens to include Virgil
"Bondo" Bonderman, the first auto body repair shop employee to go into
5. Having successfully fixed whatever was wrong with the shuttle, the
astronauts are cleared for reentry. However, out of fear of a cold front, a
warm front or a "front that is basically room temperature" moving toward
Florida, they are redirected to land at Edwards Air Force Base in
6. After receiving a heroes' welcome, the astronauts are dismayed to learn
that they will be billed extra for dropping off the shuttle at a site
different from the original rental location.
Of course, having witnessed what can happen when things really go wrong on a
shuttle mission, Americans are always relieved to see the shuttle return in
one piece. But NASA isn't looking to generate relief - they want to generate
excitement; they want to generate enthusiasm; they want to generate more
funding! And that means coming up with novel ways to capture the public's
attention. Which explains the case of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who earlier this
year famously drove non-stop from Houston to Orlando, possibly while wearing
adult diapers, to confront and kidnap a romantic rival for a fellow
For most of us, this behavior was shocking -not the kind of thing you ever
heard about from guys like John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. But this is the new
space program. Where once NASA recruited astronauts who had "The Right
Stuff," today the agency is cultivating more of a "stable of the unstable" -
astronauts whose mastery of space travel is only exceeded by their ability
to entertain the rest of us with their bizarre and erratic behavior here on
So what does the future hold for the space agency? Having achieved great
visibility with the love triangle story, NASA will no doubt roll out other
soap opera-inspired plots. The public should anticipate soon hearing about
astronauts suffering from amnesia, being kidnapped and replaced by an evil
twin, returning from the dead and, this being NASA after all, becoming
impregnated by a space alien.
At least with that last story line, no one would ever again wonder just what
the astronauts are "doing" up there.