NASA: Dodging the Green Bullet

NASA announced last Friday that while searching for the reason foam separated from the space shuttle Endeavor during takeoff (tearing a 3-inch gash in the belly of the craft and causing much nail biting during reentry), they found nine small cracks in the insulation on an external fuel tank that may be the cause of the foam chipping off—the same foam that was responsible for the Columbia disaster 4 years prior.

While NASA is coyly suggests that the blame ought to rest with the cork insulation and not the foam itself, this latest scare demonstrates that NASA has not, as I had hoped, fixed the problem that was responsible for the Columbia disaster. They have not reverted to the foam that had been used with great success before bowing to environmentalist pressure groups to switch to a green-friendly material. This prompts me to ask the question: Why does NASA continue to play Russian roulette by deferring their good judgment to the uninformed, unscientific whim of environmentalists? Do the priceless lives of brilliant astronauts on the Endeavor, Columbia, and Challenger mean anything to them? Evidence has been cited by other bloggers that environmentalism has been a direct cause in the last 3 shuttle disasters.

If not lives, what about the billions of dollars of public money disintegrating in the skies above us (not to mention the money given to the families of the crew and the investigations that resulted in no significant changes), surely that would motivate NASA to find and stem the cause of such waste and use every recourse to prevent reoccurrence?

The answer is no. NASA has little motivation to prevent loss of life, and no motivation to prevent loss of money — because it is not motivated by profit. With no competition (at the present moment) and a virtually unending supply of government money, provided it keeps the right people in its corner, NASA is more concerned with the potential loss of political support then it is about the loss of human life. NASA was lucky this time, they were able to dodge a potentially fatal bullet— but it was only luck. If they continue to tempt reality by ignoring it, sooner or later NASA’s luck will run out. But where NASA fails, look to private enterprise to demonstrate how a properly motivated entity can truly reach the stars.

This embryonic industry recently experienced its own tragic disaster when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic prototype exploded at an air force base in the Mojave Desert, killing four workers. The privately funded space tourism company had been planning to start whisking adventurous travelers to sub-orbit as early as 2009.

The difference between NASA and Galactic, public and private ventures will become blissfully clear within the next few years, and I’d put money down that Branson and his gang will find the cause of the accident and, unlike their federally funded counterparts, do everything within their power to remedy the problem immediately. Regardless of the environmental friendliness (or unfriendliness) of a solution — you can bet that they will utilize any option to prevent another accident from happening because they only have one master to serve: the paying public.

In order to survive, Virgin Galactic must act in the best interest of passengers. Without the bottomless coffer of public money, they actually need to convince investors and passengers that Virgin Galactic is safe and profitable and Branson knows that another deadly incident could potentially give the public a long-lasting taste-aversion to commercial space travel, slowing, if not killing, Virgin Galactic’s future potential.

But I have confidence that regardless of what environmentalists throw at Galactic (and with private space travel poised to leave a big-foot sized carbon foot-print you can bet they’ll have something to say) Branson, unlike NASA will find the cause and fix it. Unlike NASA, he does not have to yield to political pressure in order to find funding. Were he to come up against environmentalism, my guess is that he’d fight rather than dodge attacks from pressure groups. Personally, I’d rather fly on Virgin Galactic’s virgin flight than on a mission by NASA with its long history of ignoring the facts of reality.