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NASA and the Gods of Small Government

Writer Malcolm Gladwell specializes in deconstructing the fragility of the beliefs that lend wisdom to convention. In a 1996 article marking the 10 th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, he predicted that another disaster was inevitable no matter how thorough the rituals of rectification, because “we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

As a nation we are not so technologically literate as to logically concede the failures inherent in progress. We may learn to use computers but that doesn’t mean we understand the consequences of using computers, the alterations they impose on social interaction, the effects they may have on our understanding of reality. It means that when we watch the video of a missile-guided bomb zero in on its target and explode, our frame of reference has nothing to do with the human toll on the ground but with the computer game we played the night before. Technological illiteracy means that a gap between fantasy and reality is possible, making disasters like the Challenger and Columbia harder to grasp for most, easier to exploit for some.

In his speech on the Challenger’s demise, President Reagan devoted a few words to a Gladwell-like explanation: “Sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery.” But the words concluded on a contradiction of the very explanation he had given. The astronauts hadn’t been victims of a technological failure. They just “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” In quoting those words from a third-rate World War II poem, the president imbued the catastrophe in a divine dimension that would never be brought back to Earth.

A commission blamed the explosion on the $900 rubber seal on the rocket booster. The seals had been a perennial problem, but they were judged to fall in that category of “acceptable risks.” A misjudgment and a tragedy, but not a crime. Case closed.

What the commission could not conclude is that those acceptable risks were the arbitrary fabrication of an emerging culture of cost-cutting at NASA.

Reagan could mythologize the Challenger tragedy in spite of his administration’s budget-cutting hand in it because of Americans’ technological illiteracy. It isn’t strictly an ignorance of choice, but of religious conviction. Technology is an American faith in the same order of magnitude as cathedrals represented the faith of the medieval soul, which explains the mystical-like atmosphere that surrounds a shuttle launch, or the automatic appeal to God when something goes awry.

What Reagan did with Challenger, President George W. Bush did even more explicitly with Columbia , quoting Scriptures in a first of many coming evasions from culpability. Because NASA’s 1980s culture of corner-cutting is now policy. The Clinton administration didn’t help. The shuttle maintenance staff was cut from 3,000 to 1,800 workers from 1995 to 1999. The General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences and NASA’s advisory boards were all pleading for better safety planning. Top officials resigned out of concern.

Bush encouraged the trend, installing a bean-counter at NASA’s helm and stripping half a billion dollars from NASA’s 2003 improvement and safety budget. Last April, Richard Blomberg, chairman of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel for 15 years, told Congress that he had “never been as worried for space shuttle safety as now.”

Blomberg, too, resigned. Six other panel members sounding alarms either resigned or were fired. Sometimes failures are just embedded in a reckless disregard for safety, in official lies and appeals to God.

Maybe the 14 astronauts killed in the two disasters touched the face of God. More likely, they were seared by the surly bonds of budgetary dogmas, by the fetish of selectively small government. They’re the faces of two national tragedies born of that gap between the fantasy of infallibility and the reality of a bankrupt commitment.

A nation of technological illiterates can’t see the difference until disaster strikes, and even then it just takes a few rituals of reassurance to restore the old illusions.

But NASA is only the most visible government cathedral to make do with the ruins of its former glory. There’s no doubt that today, tomorrow or the day after, a minivan carrying, like Columbia , a family of seven, will careen out of control from hitting a deep pothole or a withered shoulder on one of those roads left to rot by a low-cal government budget. No one will hear about it except in some lost local paper. But the death toll will be the same. So will the ultimate cause. And the grieving families will settle for an act of God. They’ll even call it an accident.


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