SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 73, March 2003

The geopolitics of space

SEVEN ASTRONAUTS plunged to their deaths as the space shuttle, Columbia, broke up re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere on 1 February. Speculation as to the cause is rife. The latest idea being pursued by Nasa (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is that a hole in Columbia’s left wing acted as a conduit for plasma – in this situation, gas superheated (by friction between the craft and molecules in the atmosphere) up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,700 centigrade, about one-third of the Sun’s surface temperature.

A series of sensor failures and erratic readings began at 8:53am when the shuttle was over California, travelling at 23 times the speed of sound. At 9:00am, all communication ended. The shuttle was then about 207,000 feet above ground, travelling at 18 times the speed of sound. A couple of minutes later, Columbia could be seen breaking up in the clear blue sky above Texas and Louisiana. The six Americans and one Israeli on board had no chance of survival.

Nasa has set up what looks like a stooge inquiry, drawn from the military and Nasa itself. After complaints in Congress, a former chairman of McDermott International (a military contractor), was added. Bart Gordon, the leading Democrat on the House space subcommittee, was unimpressed: "I’m afraid this won’t pass anybody’s smell test of independence". (New York Times, 13 February)

The space agency is sensitive to criticism. In 2002, when a Nasa panel warned of potential safety problems due to underfunding, five of its nine members and two consultants were removed. A sixth member, Bernard Kauderer (a retired three-star admiral), quit in disgust.

Debris has been found in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and across Texas and Louisiana, so it is early to expect any firm conclusions. Nonetheless, there is a lot of pressure for a speedy resolution. Nasa does not want its three remaining shuttles grounded for long.

When George W Bush made his memorial speech, he recommitted his administration to manned space travel. Nasa’s budget for 2004 has been increased by 3.1% to nearly $15.5 billion – with $3.97 billion for the shuttle programme, up from $3.2 billion in 2002. Fifty million dollars will be provided for the investigation.

In general terms, however, Nasa’s budget has remained static for over a decade: "It is a story of seesawing budgets, political infighting and radical policy shifts, all carried out against a backdrop of ever-falling public interest in space exploration". (New York Times, 9 February)

The rivalry between the United States of America and the former Soviet Union spurred on the space race after the second world war. Each wanted to beat the other to the next stage: the first artificial satellite in orbit (Sputnik I, 1957), the first manned space flight (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong, 1969)… It was an integral part of the cold war between the two antagonistic superpowers. After the race to the moon, the next frontier – a manned mission to Mars – was, and remains, a long way off.

Public interest lessened with every moonwalk. And the Soviet Union was en route to a cataclysmic economic and social collapse, unable to sustain the challenge.

The shuttle programme was an attempt to reignite people’s interest during Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-89). Under Bill Clinton (president from 1993-2001), the International Space Station took shape, built by American and Russian technicians: former enemies in a new-found East-West cooperation. It was also a way of stopping Russian rocket scientists selling their services to ‘rogue states’.

Both projects have been an immense financial drain for dubious scientific gain. The cynicism is reflected in the media: "It is an open secret that the only real purpose of the International Space Station is to provide a reason to keep flying space shuttles". (Paul Krugman, International Herald Tribune, 5 February) Thomas Mallon (a writer of fiction and essays on space travel) commented: "Two generations of Americans now associate the shuttle almost exclusively with grief and setback". (New York Times, 5 February)

The Columbia disaster could impact on the International Space Station. There is even a danger that the 200-ton station could fall to Earth. It travels 244 miles (390 km) up, orbiting the world every 90 minutes, gradually sinking all the time. Each shuttle and Soyuz visit lifts its orbit. But the annual budget for Rosaviakosmos (Russian Aviation and Space Agency) is $266 million – 2% that of Nasa and half that of India. The Russian space vehicle manufacturer, RSC Energia, subsidises its losses by making vacuum cleaners; it could not easily increase its spacecraft output. Some commentators doubt that the Soyuz missions could cover for the potential loss of shuttle flights. Allowing the space station to hurtle to Earth would be a PR catastrophe.

US space policy has zigzagged, riding the highs of enthusiasm, the troughs of despair and indifference. After the Challenger shuttle exploded soon after launch on 28 January 1986, all hell broke loose. Nasa tried to cover up fundamental flaws in the shuttle’s design, precipitating a major shake-up of its organisation. Upgrades cost more than $1 billion and officials boasted that it took a million signatures to certify a shuttle ready to fly.

Under Clinton, Nasa brought in private contractors to cut costs. In 1996, responsibility for the shuttle fleet was handed over to United Space Alliance, set up by Rockwell International and Lockheed Martin. Nasa gave operators $6 million in bonuses for every flight that stayed up for its full mission, with penalties if it did not. For every dollar slashed from the budget, the company received 35 cents. Workers were laid off then re-employed on a part-time basis, without benefits.

In July 1999, during a Columbia launch, a small pin broke loose, rupturing three cooling tubes and shutting down its main engines. Serious wiring problems grounded the fleet for months: "Years of deep budget cuts in the shuttle programme – cuts that had shed more than 10,000 engineers, technicians and quality control employees – were potentially imperilling the lives of astronauts". (New York Times, 9 February) In 1988, 49% of the shuttle budget went on safety and performance upgrades, by 1999 that was down to 19%. The 1999 near-miss jolted the Clinton administration to pump in new money and employees.

Despite his recent rhetoric, Bush has sought more cuts. By April 2002, Nasa had cancelled three safety upgrades, including a plan to switch the shuttle’s auxiliary power unit from highly flammable fuel to a safer electrical system. Unless the Columbia investigation scuppers the plans, the shuttle is expected to remain in service largely unchanged until 2020.

Putting human beings in space is expensive, dangerous and inefficient. We are heavy, bulky, need to breathe, eat and get back home. From an objective viewpoint, it’s not worth it. The most significant gains have been made by unmanned vehicles and satellites: meteorological and environmental observation, the 1970s Voyager missions, Mars robot, Cassini Saturn probe, etc.

But here, as in all walks of life under the twisted logic of the capitalist, profit-driven system, rational decision-making is not to be found. This cutting-edge technology could be used for socially useful purposes, including astronomical research. Today, however, Nasa’s space missions project US global dominance. Military applications of satellite technology are constantly refined. The inclusion of foreign astronauts is part of international diplomacy. And it promotes domestic, ruling-class propaganda. One of the astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, an expendable item on the ledger, sacrificed on the US patriotic altar at a time when Reagan was severely cutting school funding.

Manny Thain


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