08/08/2005 10:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Put a Cork in It

After one delay already, Discovery may try to "de-orbit" early tomorrow morning. "Or Wednesday," say NASA officials. I'm sure the sweat is pouring, from brows both at NASA and in Discovery's cockpit. Everything's on the line, for the agency and the astronauts. I'm sweating just thinking about it. When the topic came up with my dad, a physicist at JPL, his response was: "All I know is, if I was up there, I'd be putting a big freaking cork in my ass!"

I'm not sure what that means, but Pops was once almost sent to Houston to train as a payload specialist (i.e. astronaut), so I have to take his word, however confusing it may be.

Corks or not, the one certainty about the shuttle is the uncertainty of its future, even with the safest homecoming. Discovery's space-borne drama has caused NASA to suspend future flights -- rightfully so. And not because of the safety issues, which is a red herring. As my dad pointed out, the shuttle is such a complicated piece of equipment, there's no way to make it 100% safe: "There are 4 giant pumps in that thing, each delivering 20,000 gallons of liquid oxygen per second. It strains the limits of engineering in every flight. The trip is so punishing the shuttles have to be almost entirely rebuilt after each launch. It's almost a miracle they get off the ground."

But that's not the reason the shuttle should stay on the ground. NASA should get rid of the shuttle before the shuttle gets rid of NASA.

Now, let me just first say that I love the excitement of the shuttle as much as the next kid reared on Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica and the Martian Chronicles. The shuttle provides the intrinsic thrill of space travel, and even looks like a plane, holding out the promise that one day we'll all just be racing back and forth to the moon. In between hanging posters of Charon and Europa on my walls, I used to paint models of Columbia, and once even made the trek to Edwards to see a landing.

Sadly, excitement is all the shuttle is really good for. And at a very high price: the shuttle program, along with its even more wasteful cousin, the international space station (ISS), together take up a huge chunk of NASA's budget -- $4.3 billion, or about a quarter of the total in 2005 -- and yet both are basically worthless for actual scientific research. Aside from repairing the Hubble Telescope, the shuttle has done little of scientific value.

This mission, for example, was basically a costly Pink Dot delivery, bringing more granola and toilet paper to the space station and maybe bringing some trash back to earth as a tip. Discovery delivered no instrumentation to the ISS and carries no experiments of its own. Even if it had, the science on the shuttle and space station is all high school stuff anyway -- one step above three-panel cardboard signs in the gym saying "Hypothesis: plants grow better to Mozart than when listening to a loop of Dokken B-sides." No one's learned anything from the shuttle or the ISS, except that humans can't live in micro-gravity, and we probably could have figured that out for less than many tens of billions of dollars.

In the words of one scientist who provided the following analysis on double-secret background: "The shuttle and the Space Station are not worth a turd. They add nothing to human knowledge or understanding. And worse yet, they suck funds away from everything else." Such as the highly successful (and relatively cheap) unmanned missions like Cassini-Huygens or Deep Impact or the Mars Rovers, all of which are, dollar for dollar, somewhere on the order of 100,000 times more efficient than the clunky shuttle.

Since its inception the shuttle has been mostly a political project, a flying Cold War totem at the (huge) expense of real research -- and it's only going to get worse now that Bush, who doesn't really believe in science, has grandly pronounced that Americans will again stand on the Moon, and while we're at it, let's also fly humans to Mars for no real reason.

All that amounts to a huge waste of resources, an un-funded mandate that has already shifted even more resources from real science to more symbolic space flight. The $11.6 billion that will cost in just the next five years is supposed to come from cannibalizing or delaying other NASA programs, like the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, the Global Precipitation Measuring Mission, and a group of astronomy missions called Beyond Einstein that will investigate the origin of dark matter and black holes.

It's typical Bush: more show; less substance. What will be sacrificed for Bush's wan emulation of Kennedy's Apollo program is the actual business of NASA: solar system exploration, deep space astronomy, and observation satellites for Earth Sciences, which are ever more important for measuring things like global warming -- I mean, of course, if there was such a thing.

If trends continue, NASA's budget will eventually be entirely politicized, a $16 billion-a-year photo-op machine that is no longer devoted to seeking truth. That's why the best thing that could happen for NASA is if Discovery's troubles finally put the kibosh on both the shuttle program and the ISS. Freeing up so much of its funding would actually slow the agency's demise. NASA would be able to satisfy the Bush's political imperative to develop the next generation Crew Exploration Vehicles and keep doing some science. Only in retirement would Discovery help NASA keep living up to the shuttle's name.