Along with people all across America — and the world — we’re excited and relieved that the Space Shuttle Discovery landed safely Tuesday morning.
It was a safe ending to the first flight of the shuttle fleet since the February 2003 explosion of the shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing its seven-member crew.
This time, Discovery had problems on takeoff, when a piece of insulation flew off the fuel tank, but didn’t hit the shuttle. And the astronauts had to perform in-space repairs. But otherwise, it was about as successful as one can get.
Yet our joy at Discovery’s achievements is tempered by the realization that the shuttle program has outlived its scientific and technological usefulness. “Space is a place, not a government program,” Ed Hudgins said; he’s director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Objectivist Center and the author of “Space: The Free-Market Frontier.”
“Given the problems the shuttle has had in the past and the problems on this flight, we need to think seriously about retiring the shuttle well before the end of the decade,” he added. “We’re getting little science from this.”
Shuttle backers point to the shuttles’ usefulness flying people and supplies to the International Space Station. But that isn’t producing much science, either, Hudgins said.
Instead, what America needs to do, he urged, was to move toward private space measures. The same week the Discovery was launched, he noted, entrepreneur Richard Branson signed a deal with private space pioneer Burt Rutan to form the Spaceship Company to advance — and profit from — private space travel.
NASA’s continuing role, Hudgins said, should not be to build a government-run “successor” to the shuttle, because that would bring with it the same bureaucratic problems as the shuttle. Instead, it should contract out services. We agree, and are heartened that the shuttle program has drawn the sharp scrutiny it needs in recent weeks from the major news organizations, even from National Public Radio. Conventional wisdom is starting to turn, rightly, against the expensive and increasingly unproductive endeavor.