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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2003 / 8 Adar I, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Should the shuttle crash be the end of NASA? | We're a nation of space cadets again.

It's too bad seven innocent astronauts had to die. But the crash of the shuttle Columbia and the ensuing multimedia circus of shock and grief might actually serve a valuable national purpose.

If we are lucky, Columbia's sad but statistically inevitable fall to earth might result in the long-overdue elimination of what's left of the entire idiotic shuttle program, and, for good measure, NASA itself.

Abolishing NASA is the expert opinion and fond hope of one Gregg Easterbrook, a New Republic senior editor and author of a persuasive essay in Time magazine that explains why "The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped."

Time and Newsweek each scrambled Saturday morning to redo their covers and produce their shuttle packages. Understandably, given the rush, both magazines padded their reports with lots of pictures and insta-profiles of a crew that had suddenly lost its well-deserved anonymity and become world heroes.

Newsweek got old John Glenn, a true space hero, to write a quick, mostly worthless first-person account of what it's like in a shuttle during re-entry. And Newsweek's Jerry Adler emits a few puffs of criticism about the shuttle program's high cost ($500 million per launch) and low utility.

But the killer piece is by Easterbrook, a smart writer/thinker who recently was trashed in this space for his silly anti-SUV rage but has long been a voice of reason when it comes to environmental issues.

Why we have heard so little about NASA's inherent faults and flaws from CBS, CNN, et al. over the years is a question for a real media critic. But everything Easterbrook says in Time this week - that the shuttle program is "too expensive, too risky, too big for most of the ways it's used" and it sucks up budget money that could be used for safer, more modern launch systems - has always been true.

In fact, Easterbrook wrote it all in April 1980, before the first shuttle was ever launched. He dissected the program's inherent safety problems, design flaws and dubious goals and budget projections in a long and prescient cover story for Washington Monthly called "Beam Us Out of This Deathtrap, Scotty!"

NASA, as Reason magazine and others have argued for nearly 25 years, is a just another government monopoly, only with wings and rockets. A flying Post Office, a low-orbit government transit system, it is inefficient, technologically backward, dumb with its money and interested in perpetuating itself at almost any cost.

As Easterbrook points out, NASA is a fatty pork-barrel program. It has built a powerful constituency - Washington politicians and aerospace contractors in states such as Florida and California - who have a vested interest in keeping the shuttle program (and the equally useless and even more expensive manned space station) from being reformed or replaced.

Easterbrook is a great critic but, unfortunately, comes to the wrong conclusion. He wants to replace NASA with a new federal agency. But the real answer is to privatize outer space and let a thousand rocket-ship companies bloom. If aviation had been monopolized by government for the past 100 years, airplanes would still carry only mail and bombs.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald