Thursday, August 14, 2008

How Stupid Can We Be?

In the case of our manned space program, we’re about to find out.
If you’ve been in touch with the news at all, you know about the Russian invasion of Georgia. The Russians are not going anywhere for a while, and their continued presence will increase the friction between our country and theirs. That’s too bad, not only because of the tensed general state of the world but because of what it can mean for the US manned space program.

I’ve always been for cooperation between the United States and other countries, and I’ve always felt the US manned space program’s role in easing tensions between the US and Russia has been one of its brightest benefits, no matter what else we technically did or did not gain. But there is a subtle and important difference between cooperating with foreign partners and being dependent upon them. It’s not in the best interests of the United States to ever become dependent on any country for its access to space. Yet, with the upcoming retirement of the shuttle and the four to five year gap that will exist between that event and the rise of the Constellation program, the United States will be dependent upon Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles to keep the International Space Station manned.

Now, here comes Georgia, the Russian invasion, and a possible new Cold War. At least that’s what’s being threatened, in true Soviet fashion.
Whether either country can really afford a new Cold War may not be a moot point, but I’m not going to explore that here. Even without that, any Russian whim can cut off US access to the ISS or make it so expensive the cost to get there is prohibitive. If that happens, we’re going to come to understand the short sightedness of mothballing the shuttle before Constellation is flying. Combine that with a rising Chinese influence in the conquest of space, and the United States could find itself, for the first time in its history, a spaceborne power flying in third place.

Yes, there have been recent efforts in the US Congress to extend the shuttle for a flight or two and even talk of using the shuttle to close the “Shuttle-Constellation” gap. The problem is that, because of current funding levels and the attitude of top officials in NASA and the administration, they want to stop the shuttle from flying as soon as possible to turn both their dollars and their efforts to Constellation. They don’t want shuttle extended. But just like human gestation periods are fixed, so is the time you can cut to bring a new program on board. Constellation can’t be born and flying soon enough to get us out of this mess.

There may be some time left to keep the shuttle flying until Constellation can lift off, assuming you can push that idea past the organizational resistance in NASA that would have to be overcome. But the last external tank for shuttle has already been built and tooling for the metal behemoths is already being torn down to make way for The New Toy. In our rush to bury what has been painted as a faulty past, we may wind up losing our near-term leadership in space. What that might cost us is anyone’s guess.

What's the Difference?

My wife and I were at dinner with another couple when the lady across the table pointed out that the invasion of Georgia by Russian was the mirror image of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. She was right. What are the similarities? Both countries invaded to promote regime change and both countries did so against the opposition of an inferior military force. What are the differences? Well, the Russians invaded to support pro-Soviet forces in the break-away Georgian province of South Ossetia after Georgian military forces cracked down on it. The United States invaded Iraq under the false pretenses of “fighting the terrorists” and ending the possibility of supplying them and Hussein with “weapons of mass destruction” that have never been found.

I busted out laughing this morning at Condeleesa Rice’s statement that “This is not 1968 and the Russians cannot threaten their neighbors and hope to get away with it.” Are they really so blind they can’t see the amazingly arrogant irony in that statement? Have they never asked themselves what it is that makes us think we’re going to get away with the invasion of Iraq?

History will make its judgments. And history will not be formed until after we have left the country and the government of Iraq takes its final form, one that could be very different from that we see today. Despite the fact that the “Surge” has calmed things down, we’ve still got a long road to hoe.

What is it in the American political psyche that makes us believe that anything in the cause of freedom is okay? That is the way we think; for if it were not, our leaders could not blind us with it whenever they had some darker political objective they want to pursue. The Bush administration went into Iraq with a child-like view of the place that ignored a thousand years of history and assumed the Iraqi people would just jump at the chance to be free no matter what the cost. This is the same failed thinking used to try to cure an alcoholic by offering them recovery whether or not they’re ready for it. People have to be in enough pain that it forces them through the fear of change, or it ain’t gonna happen. The only people who know if that is true for them are the ones involved. In the case of Iraq, it ain’t us.