Hail, Columbia!

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Think
of the space shuttle as a fractal element of the Federal government.
Fractals, you’ll recall, are those bizarre, intricate structures
composed of miniature copies of themselves, such as the famous Mandelbrot
Set, or deceptively mundane broccoli. Most fractals are elegant,
often beautiful, arrangements that emerge from patterns created
from their constituent elements. The post-constitutional Federal
government, on the other hand, is a grim kaleidoscope of dubious
projects with obscene price tags, of which the space shuttle is
but one component. Nevertheless, since the elements that make up
a fractal look like the overall structure, we can learn much about
the whole by studying one of its parts. The space shuttle, then,
has much to teach us about the political system that spawned it.

The
space shuttle is part of an enormously expensive program propped
up for the benefit of other expensive programs. The shuttle program
alone will cost $3.3 billion dollars this year. Someone has to administer
it, so we have to have NASA, which will cost us $15 billion this
year, only $500 million more than 2002. We need the space shuttle
to support the space station, a grand and glorious project that
was supposed to cost between $14 billion and $17 billion to construct.
However, the General Accounting Office estimated last June it will
cost $92 billion to complete. That accounting revision launched
another giant leap for mankind – an international scavenger hunt
for reasons to keep the 200-ton contraption in orbit. As reported
in the February 4, 2003 New York Times:

“Now everything
is being re-evaluated once again. Yesterday, American and European
officials working on the project said they were scrambling to
figure out next steps: not only how to sustain the station in
orbit, but also how to sustain political and public interest in
its lofty, but sometimes ill-defined mission. One option not being
considered is mothballing the station.”

Why,
one might ask, isn’t mothballing the space station an option? The
only answer politicians and NASA administrators offer is that to
pull the plug now would be an admission of failure. So, the logic
is that since the space station has not lived up to its expectations,
the only thing to do is to spend more money and risk more lives
on it. A follow-up study in July 2002 by a NASA task force concluded
that space station crews had to be expanded “in order to justify
the program.”

Colonel
Robert Cabana, a former astronaut now in charge of flight crew operations
at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, told reporters at a news
conference, “We don’t want to leave it unmanned because we’re exploring,
we’re doing science, we have a mission. We’re up there to do what
we set out to do, and that’s not leave the space station. The crew
is working very hard up there. They’ve got a lot to do. And it just
wouldn’t be right to quit.”

Indeed
not. Without the space shuttle to nudge it back into orbit from
time to time, the space station would fall toward earth and burn
up in the atmosphere. With no space station, there’d be no place
for the space shuttle to go. Both the shuttle and space station
programs simply must go on. After all, we have a mission here.

All
of which mirrors the circularity of maintaining Washington’s benevolent
global hegemony.

After
the Soviet Union collapsed, all the talk about the “peace dividend”
quickly hushed as new threats were discovered to replace the Red
Menace. Posturing strongmen in formerly insignificant countries
were identified as budding Hitlers who must be stopped.

Since
“we” had these new enemies all over the world, we were forced to
garrison troops wherever we stumbled upon potential threats. US
forces remained in Saudi Arabia after Gulf War I to “stabilize”
the Middle East, and aid to Israel – our best friend in the region,
as we have to keep reminding ourselves – soon totaled over $100
billion. Then master terrorist Bin Laden emerged, angered by the
presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and American support of Israel.
Stopping him required invading Afghanistan, and setting up a government
there, to the tune of $10.2 billion, and counting.

But
new threats have popped up like whack-a-moles. We realized the elusive
Bin Laden must have been in cahoots with Hussein, so we expanded
the war on terror by invading Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office
has estimated that a very short war (as promised by Richard Perle,
and others) and the five-year military occupation of Iraq would
cost us $272 billion. The US defense budget will be $396 billion
in 2003, and is expected to reach $470 billion by 2007. These increases
in military spending are necessary, we’re told, because of the mysterious
rise of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Already, Perle
and his neocon seers foresee preventive US invasions into Iran,
Syria, Saudi Arabia. …

What’s
next? Who knows? As the good colonel said, we’ve got a lot to do
here. Sending people into space is a noble endeavor. Projecting
American power over the planet is, too. The more we do, the more
we have to do. Even as we snuff lives and fuel deficits, it’s only
because we have no choice. After all, we have a mission.

Or
did someone already say that?

April
1, 2003

Michael
C. Tuggle [send him mail]
is a project manager and e-commerce consultant in Charlotte, NC.
His first book, Confederates in the Boardroom, explores the implications
of organizational science on political systems, and will be published
by Traveller Press in June, 2003.


     

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