Money Jungle: “Starship Pain”

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President Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral is conveniently set for Tax Day, April 15, and it occurs in a context of general discomfort for all involved. The ostensible purpose is to stop a slow trickle of support flowing away from Obama in a crucial battleground state, which is itself living a political nightmare. The White House won’t admit it, but Florida bears directly on the future of the Obama Agenda, whatever that is.

Obama’s doing damage control after unveiling a package of brutal cuts to NASA and affiliated contractors. Floridians have every reason for concern. With Discovery in orbit right now, there are only three flights remaining in the shuttle schedule. After that, it may be decades before Americans return to space under their own power. With foreign programs also vulnerable to economic or political shifts, and still years behind what we’re set to scrap, mankind has seemingly awakened from a dream that obsessed our ancestors from the days of DaVinci, Icarus and Elijah. And once again, the inspirational legacy of JFK gets pissed away.

Like so many of the catastrophic maneuvers to occur under Obama’s watch, the collapse of America’s space program is hardly his fault. The cuts being pushed right now were all but inevitable before he was even elected, a result of long-term budgetary trends and the slow-motion disintegration of the country’s overall mechanical capacity. Neither factor was controllable by 2009. The reality is that our commitment to space exploration, in the terms defined by JFK in 1961, effectively died alongside the heroes we lost aboard the Challenger when it blew up in the sky over Florida in 1986.

And let’s be clear, here: The Challenger crew died because of neglect and hubris on the bureaucratic level—defects enshrined, by default, as official policy for the quarter-century that followed. The tragedy that followed, 17 years later, was a logical, inevitable extension of that policy. No serious efforts were ever made to replenish the Shuttle Fleet or modernize the design to reflect changing strategic priorities. The next generation(s) of manned spaceflight will be organized around private industry, with foreign governments (Russia, China, India) performing functions typically associated with NASA. Good luck with that. Obama, at least, has positioned himself as unwilling to put more lives at risk on behalf of goals abandoned before he got there.

From agriculture and industrial production to engineering and information technology, our educational system has become incrementally worse, and production of the most vital goods for life has fallen apace. As in so many other cases, so exhaustively documented here and elsewhere, the recession is being used as an excuse to accelerate trends that began while the economy was still at or near its fake, fraudulent peak. Mass-firing as a profit-padding technique has been in effect since the ‘80s: the family farms, the mom-and-pop stores, factory towns all over the country.

I just happened to be polishing this column in the minutes just before the shuttle Discovery took off April 5, and a recurring theme in the coverage was that there won’t be much more of this stuff—not for Americans, anyway. And that’s a shame. This is another sign of Florida’s changing fortunes under Obama. He’s made no enthusiastic display for Kendrick Meek’s Senate bid, and the White House has done nothing to defend the House seats at risk in November. The timing of the NASA cuts implies ambivalence, at best, to the fates of many Obama loyalists; at worst, it suggests frightful ignorance of the reality on the ground. Where have we heard that before?

This is the worst year for incumbents in living memory, but the GOP has done a much better job of training candidates. Besides yielding the open seats and not defending their incumbents, Beltway Dems show no inclination to seriously challenge the other side. President Obama is increasingly defined by his enemies, and he does not control his message. Meek should be positioned to inherit all the scorched-earth of this ridiculously shady Crist-Rubio primary debacle, but instead he’s looking lucky to keep the margin in single digits against either of them. That means real disaster for Florida: a stuffed-shirt GOP sandbagger doing the bidding of whomever has the photos of them together.

All the plans were made years ago, and most of the science has been in place. But corporate greed, political incompetence and collective myopia leaves the US trading on glories from 40 years ago, as the world snickers. Spaceflight is just a recent example. Funding issues aside, the courage and intelligence of our astronauts far outpaces that of our elected leaders, to the point where it now presents an obvious danger to their lives. The biggest question, frankly, is will America even be able to safely cease manned spaceflight without a third major disaster? 

sdh666@hotmail.com; April 5, 2010

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