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Space travel is a counterintuitive act. A creature not originally designed to walk upright doesn't merely become airborne, but loops beyond Earth and, in so doing, somehow finds out more about the planet it has exited.
That is why, with the shuttle Discovery now safely on the ground, its astronauts deposited in their homes and NASA breathing a lucky sigh, it is time to listen to contrarians such as Freeman Dyson.
Dyson is 81 now and still makes the daily trip to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In his youth he devised a plan to launch humans into deep space using a nuclear explosion. He is versed in both quantum mechanics and engineering, bridging the two with an ambitious philosophy that suggests humans reach beyond their boundaries because it's part of being human. He has won both the Max Planck Medal for theoretical physics and the Templeton Prize for progress in religion. Ordinary answers are not his habit.
When the shuttle landed last week, he had a disarmingly brief message for its owners: park it and trade up. He spoke from the same impulse with which a man in his middle years disposes of the minivan and buys a Mini Cooper.
Whim, at least as Dyson describes it, is what can save the space program:
"It should be an international sporting event. That's what it was in the days of Apollo. That's what the public likes. It shouldn't be sold under the false pretenses of having anything to do with science."
The thought of divorcing space travel from science borders on the irrational until we consider that we'd really be divorcing it from the shipping trade. Such science as is getting done onboard the shuttle is taking place in a vehicle designed for cargo transport. The shuttle, when first sold to Congress in the early 1970s, was a sort of half-rocket/half-airplane that was supposed to transport satellites and supplies to low-Earth orbit. Early estimates suggested it would fly on an almost weekly basis -- truly a shuttle to and from space, rearranging the ornaments on Earth's outer lawn.
As technology, the shuttle was extraordinary. Jay Apt, the Carnegie Mellon professor who flew on it, likens its departure to the end of the era of great ocean liners.
"With 11 magnificent windows and a cavernous living volume, it has carried nearly 300 people to and from orbit over a quarter of a century," Apt said. "It has provided a way off our planet for doctors, engineers, lawmakers and scientists from 14 countries."
Lou Friedman, head of the Planetary Society, a group devoted to space exploration, agrees the shuttle was remarkable, but so was its misapplication.
"It was a laudable experimental aircraft," Friedman said. "The problem was it was experimental. It wasn't a technological workhorse, which they tried to turn it into."
Dyson sees it as NASA failing to comprehend the same lesson the railroads learned a century earlier. "The shuttle has never been satisfactory both as a freight carrier and as a passenger carrier because it tries to do both and doesn't do either well," he said.
Unmanned space travel is currently at its apogee. The Mars Rover sent back photographs and data of such stunning immediacy a viewer expected to see Neil Armstrong's footprints in red dust. There was, in these pictures, the excitement of something new having been accomplished. Continued fascination with the shuttle was spurred less by its successes than its failures. When the Columbia split into burning fragments in 2003, few in the public even realized it was up there. The missions had taken on a sameness that was very real. The excitement this time was in proving to ourselves we could solve the problems of flying insulation and, as it turns out, we couldn't.
Now, with the shuttle program grounded again until glitches are solved, it appears that NASA has put itself into a corner. Ending the program now and moving to the next level of sending humans into deeper space, possibly with a station on the moon and an actual footprint on Mars, would renew a moribund agency.
But ditching the shuttle now seems an admission of failure. Given that the immediate problem is embarrassingly pedestrian -- foam falling off a giant fuel tank -- NASA would seem to have been beaten by the same forces that made Lucy Ricardo incapable of hanging wallpaper.
"Politically speaking, of course, they have to keep flying it a bit longer," Dyson said. "Hopefully, it will close down before they crash it again."
Fiscally speaking, this means another $5 billion to $6 billion per year that could be put toward the next stage of space exploration, to say nothing of the development of more cost-efficient ways of sending up satellites.
"It's a welfare program for the industry, so it's hard to turn off," Dyson said.
President Bush last year took the first, halting steps toward turning off that spigot and redirecting the flow. He instructed NASA to begin steps toward manned exploration, with Mars as a target. He made that announcement less than a year after the invasion of Iraq, which has swallowed at minimum $265 billion, or 18 times the space program's current budget.
Where the money is going to come from, one can only guess.
Where the incentive for this effort will come from might answer the former question, and Dyson's sporting analogy seems as plausible an answer as any. The United States, after all, raced to the moon largely because we wanted to beat the Soviets to it. Few remember that, as Armstong, Aldrin and Collins were speeding toward the moon, an unmanned Soviet explorer, sent to scoop up dirt samples and bring them back ahead of Apollo, was crashing into the lunar surface.
The urge to explore usually creates unintended benefits. We tend to know things before we understand them. Hence, Robert Peary's trek to the pole, or Mallory's death on the side of Mt. Everest, take meaning in retrospect.
"It was people risking their lives to do something that hadn't been done before," Dyson said. "That's certainly something good."
With the shuttle, we've been doing the same, highly practical thing over and over again. That's no way to reach for the stars.
First Published August 14, 2005 12:00 am