Draining the Federal Udder

NASA And The Search For Better And More-Distant Rocks

Today I'm gonna tell you about the Feddle Gummint and space ships. Then you'll understand everything, and never need to read stuff again.

It's a service of this column.

Used to be we didn't have space ships, or NASA. Didn't need'em. You could sit on a rail fence, listen to Elvis, drink a RC Cola and eat Moon Pies. You didn't need a space ship to do it. You just needed a warm afternoon.

Then in 1957 Russia put Sputnik in orbit. Sputnik was a clunky dingus that sailed round and round like it knew where it was going and said, "Beep beep beep." It was a threat to national security. Anybody with good sense knew we couldn't let the Russians say "Beep beep beep" at us. We might turn into robot comminest slaves.

'Bout that time, President Kennedy was low in the polls. He looked at the Moon, and guessed it was like San Juan Hill, only shinier, and hollered, "Cha-a-aaa-aaaa-ahhh-jj!" because he was from Boston and hadn't learned English yet. He said we had to get to the Moon before the Russians did.

He didn't say why.

Actually, most folk didn't mind if the Russians went to the Moon. All of'em. Besides, the Moon was made of rocks. We had plenty already. I was only ten, and I knew where lots were, right there in Limestone County, Alabama. I'da sold them to the gummint for a quarter each.

Pretty soon we poured whole trainloads of money into building great big squatty-looking rockets. My father, a mathematician, had his salary double. Before long everybody in the family had shoes. Finally America built the Saturn V, a gy-normous rocket that looked like the Holland Tunnel stood on end, I guess in case we wanted to put aircraft carriers in orbit. Before long so many astronauts were swirling around that we had traffic congestion and then in 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. And thought:

"What the hell am I doing here?"

It was a good question. Another question was: What next?

Now, the first rule of gummint work is that, if Uncle Sucker pays you to solve a problem, you have to avoid solving it like the seven-year itch, because then you're out of a job. It's why Washington can't do anything right.

Trouble was, NASA had solved its problem. We had told it to go to the Moon. Unwisely, it did. Now the world's foremost engineering outfit, squashed full to the bilges with superb alpha-geek engineers, who could get rocks from almost anywhere, and who now had progeny and mortgages -- faced starvation. Secondary economic effects loomed. If NASA went down, so would the pocket-protector industry. It could have caused another Depression.

Aeronautical designers in the South started slipping away from work to buy big vats and copper tubing. There was always a market for moonshine.

Then some genius hollered, "Whooooo-eeee! Let's build a spaceship!"

The idea made no sense. Why go into space? There was nothing there. That's how you knew it was space. The notion was crazier than a duffel bag full of monkeys, but it sounded adventurous and needed mathematicians.

Especially, it needed mathematicians.

Money just sprayed into what came to be called the Space Shuttle, which made it sound like a cross-town bus: Stolid, dependable, practical, like Fed-Ex. If they'd called it Naked Grab At Funds, the public might have noticed.

Now, sure, there was a lot of hooha about how a space ship would answer the riddle of life, cure cancer, and get rid of crabgrass. NASA always says this. Ever notice that, when a space probe sets off to crash on Saturn or somewhere equally depressing, the press handout always starts, "NASA, in an effort to better understand weather on earth, launched a funny-looking dingus with little prongy things all over it . . . ."

Anyone with the brains of a tent caterpillar, which fortunately turns out to be about three people, would ask, "Wait. You want to understand weather on earth, so you study . . . Saturn. Yes. I see. I reckon when you want to talk to your brother in Orlando, you call your mother-in-law in Chattanooga. Makes perfect sense. Airtight."

The Space Shuttle, like the planetary probes, faced the problem that there really wasn't much to do up there. For a while NASA talked about how we were going to have factories in space to make ball bearings. They didn't believe it: When it costs $20-30K per pound to put stuff in orbit, you have to have a pretty lively markup to make a profit. Congress bought the idea, though. That's what counted.

Now, the trick to achieving funding immortality is, first, to get the country used to paying. In politics, the customary is indistinguishable from the reasonable. Next, you slowly let your boondoggle fade from the papers, so everybody forgets about it. The Shuttle was big news for about three launches. Then it was back with truss ads and inner-city murders.

For a while, life was all ham hocks and home fries. Salaries flowed. Research funds overflowed. Then the Shuttle began to get old. It used Sixties technology. If you found the thing in a Neanderthal cave, amid gnawed bones and old teeth, it would look about right. NASA needed a new Brass Ring to chase.

Enter the Space Station.

Most folk needed a Space Station like they needed a rabid raccoon or doughnuts with mustard on them. People had lived whole lives without a space station, and it hadn't hurt them any. Mostly it would just spin like a hamster wheel and cost money. But engineers still needed jobs. So we set to work on it. To improve efficiency, we got the Russians to build some of it. That always helps efficiency.

So now the thing is going up, in chunks and fragments, and nobody cares. Ask the average joe whether we even have a Space Station.

"Er . . . ah . . . heh."

What's it for?

"Well, it's, ah, up there. If it is."

Next -- this is being plotted -- we'll be told we need to send men to Mars. Unexpectedly, this will cost a bunch of money and require lots of mathematicians. It will, however, teach us about weather on Earth.

Know what Mars has? Rocks. Pink ones, like half of Arizona. I'd still sell'em to the gummint for a quarter each.