Taking Up Space
Within 24 hours of the Columbia Space Shuttle accident, NASA made three announcements worth examining. On Sunday, February 2, as reported by AP writer, Pam Easton, "NASA warned members of the public Sunday against trying to sell purported Columbia debris on eBay, as local law enforcement agencies struggled to cordon off and protect the hundreds of pieces of wreckage."
"People should not be collecting that at all. It's all government property," warned NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham, but he was too late. On Saturday, listings for pieces began appearing on eBay.
"We live in an evil world, and there are people that will do those types of things," Buckingham said, claiming to be "stunned."
I certainly have no desire to defend those who may or may not have tried to sell alleged wreckage debris, but I couldn't help but remember that, besides studying the effects of weightlessness on spiders, fish and silkworms, one of the "scientific" experiments conducted on Columbia's final mission, was the development new products ranging from paints to perfumes...stuff to be sold (maybe even on eBay).
And how about NASA and our culture at large? Won't they, in the name of American values and the continuation of the space program, readily "sell" this tragedy to us? The Sunday press was filled with early examples of spin:
"These brave astronauts died for all humankind," Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to US said, before adding: "This event has galvanized the two countries together. We have full trust in NASA."
The Rev. Mike Weaver of the All Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, said the doomed shuttle crew had touched "the face of God."
Daniel Salton, brother of mission specialist Laurel Clark said his sister was "a great role model for kids," proving "you can do great things for humanity if you just set some small goals and always go for the next thing and set your sights higher."
Dubya himself declared, "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home," before attending Mass at St. John's Church near the White House where the Rev. Luis Leon laid down the hard sell:
"We grieve because they represent the best in us, a part of which has died," Leon said. "God's heart is more heartbroken than our own, and I believe they're already resting."
Leon said he had heard some who believed the shuttle's disintegration was "God's way of getting back at us" for Bush's Iraq policies. "I don't believe in that kind of God," he assured our president. "That's hokum. That's just garbage." The Columbia's destiny, Leon told the congregation, was "the price for our freedom."
But the ultimate commodity being sold is NASA's very existence. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, chairman of the House space subcommittee, said: "We're going to correct the mistakes...but, we have to know that space policy has got to come off the back burner. Space policy for the last 10 years hasn't been given the attention it deserves."
"I hope it won't impair public support for the program," said David Hyland, chairman of the University of Michigan's Department of Aerospace Engineering. "If we really want to be a space-faring nation, we've got to ante-up."
"Our journey into space will go on," President-Select Bush concluded.
Another product we'll be asked to purchase came in the second announcement: safety through US technology. The New York Times reported that the space agency "spent tens of millions of dollars improving safety after the Challenger accident," and has "estimated the risk of a calamitous event on re-entry as 1 in 350." Also from the Times came the NASA estimate that the "risk of disaster in any given shuttle flight is about 1 in 145, or 99.3 percent."
But, as journalist Karl Grossman reminds us, "Before the Challenger accident, NASA based the likelihood of a catastrophe at 1 in 100,000. The came the Challenger, and now it's 1 in 74. [It] just shows how ridiculous these claims by NASA are."
Grossman has written extensively on nukes in space, i.e. an October 1997 launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida of the Cassini space probe with 73 pounds of plutonium on board. For those of you just tuning in, plutonium is rather deadly. Called "the most toxic chemical known to science" by Michio Kaku, a professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York, less than one-millionth of a gram of plutonium-an virtually invisible particle-is a carcinogenic dose. According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, "one pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on Earth."
A capricious scenario, you say? Not when you consider that the Russians have a fifteen percent failure rate with nuclear payloads and the US has already launched twenty-four devices carrying nuclear material into space and three have met with accidents. This includes the infamous Apollo 13, although the nuclear factor was conveniently omitted from the Ron Howard/Tom Hanks film spectacle.
Which creates a nice segue for one last NASA announcement. Mission control in Houston said on the day of the accident, "Any debris that is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth vicinity should be avoided and may be hazardous."
Apparently, poisonous rocket propellant was the main concern as "debris smashed through a roof, splashed into a reservoir and dropped amid farms, homes and businesses," Easton wrote. Some 70 people in Nacogdoches County, Texas had gone to two hospitals because they had touched debris and were worried. Will there soon be a Columbia syndrome?
Thank to its so-called "Mission to Planet EARTH," NASA has gained a reputation as a tree-hugging oasis within an arid governmental desert. For example, a 1993 shuttle Discovery mission was designed to "study the ozone layer." However, there is one small detail that those kooky space kids at NASA tend to omit: The National Toxics Campaign has reported back in 1993 that three space shuttle launches release as much ozone-destroying chlorine into the atmosphere as DuPont-the single largest industrial producer of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)-generates in a year.
When one considers the military role of NASA, the environmental façade becomes laughable. A 1998 report, "Vision For 2020," outlines the US military's plans to control space. "It's politically sensitive, but it's going to happen," explained US Space Command Commander-in- Chief Joseph W. Ashy. "Some people don't want to hear this, and it sure isn't in vogue, but--absolutely--we're going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space.... We will engage terrestrial targets someday--ships, airplanes, land targets--from space."
"Not only are there to be weapons in space," adds Karl Grossman, "but they will likely need nuclear power as their energy source."
Is this news to you? That's probably because the corporate media would rather report on brave astronauts and scientists paying the price for freedom than a taxpayer-subsidized militarization of space. "Military space policy is a media wasteland," says Loring Wirbel, communications editor of Electronic Engineering Times. "I think part of it has to do with a lot of editors thinking Americans like being Number One, like being the bully, so no one should raise the ethical questions involved in that."
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the fallen Columbia crew could be some of us taking a closer look at NASA and beginning raising those ethical questions.
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.