Hail, Columbia!

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.