The greatest tragedy of the Challenger incident was not the loss of seven valiant pioneers, but that the Space Shuttle did not fly for so long after the event. If technical matters were paramount, we would have accomplished the most workable fix, and got on with the program as quickly as possible. The notion that we could not continue to accept the risks we had known since the Mercury Seven began riding those controlled explosions until the lawyers, politicians, and journalists were satisfied that no civilians could get hurt is not only counter-productive, it is an insult to the pioneering courage of the American people. To picture Astronauts in employee-benefit conferences holding up the industrial and colonial development of space for ‘guaranteed-safe spaceships’, liability litigation, or politically-motivated investigations is embarrassing.
Though test pilots and crews have since the beginning of flight lost their lives in the costly pursuit of progress, the lawyers have taken advantage of the celebrity of STS to press for payment of huge damage settlements to the heirs of the Challenger Seven. This drives up the cost of insuring everything involved in the space program. The money allotted for the space program does not go to space development, but to insurance companies instead, to protect the engineers from the lawyers. Our safety record is astonishingly high, for the most dangerous enterprise on Terra...or off it...because our engineers are damn good...not because our lawyers are so concerned for the feelings of the heirs of the courageous.
In the first place, whence comes the notion that it is an atrocity to permit any American other than a soldier the right to put his or her one black chip on the table -- to risk life -- for our country’s progress? Are we not all born civilians? Until the days when Chuck Yeager started hanging it all out on his meager Captain’s pay, most aeronautical envelope-stretching was done by civilians like Howard Hughes, Wiley Post, and Amelia Earhart, whose only motivation for risking their lives was to go a little faster, a little farther, or to do it first. On the shoulders of such giants for a moment stood an American civilian named Christa McAuliffe, and history will surely grant her right to have been there.
How about a vote of confidence from Americans? Give us civilians a chance to prove our faith in the Space Shuttle, and we’ll pay our way doing it. Let us have a national NASA raffle, a big media ballyhoo, wherein we may buy a chance at the seat equivalent to Christa’s on the next flight of Atlantis. At $25 a throw, it wouldn’t take many of us to pay for our share of the payload weight. It could be NASA’s most profitable cargo! From pilots in Vietnam to highway patrol officers on the smugglers’ routes of Florida, to lab technicians in AIDS clinics, Americans in and out of uniform have daily risked life against worse odds for a heck of a lot less than the chance to be America’s first nobody-special in space.
No matter how practical it may seem in view of the money and public interest which could be generated, NASA is not likely to do such a thing. It would cheapen their cool Aristotelian professional image. They would be instantly bound in litigation from all sides about gambling, and the laws which regulate it. Liability insurance coverage would exceed the cost of the payload weight. IRS and Congress would both try to take the money away from them to be accounted for, appropriated, and re-disbursed to them (minus handling charges). DOD would label any assertion that "the people have a right to bid for use of the Shuttle too" to be "suspiciously leftist". No, NASA would never touch it. But could such a thing be done by a private space-activist organěization? According to various publications’ estimates, payload costs in the order of 10,000 per pound should likely be sufficient to buy a slot on an STS mission. Suppose we figure on a person+equipment weight of 500 lb. as the amount of payload weight we must buy. That is only $5,000,000. Would 200,000 Americans lay out twenty-five bucks for a shot at that ride? During a recent Holiday I watched 60,000 lay out that much and more to sit in the rain and watch one football game. Suppose we could go to NASA and offer them twice what they are charging everybody else for the payload weight? Suppose we challenge them on the talk shows to tell us why our accumulated grass-roots money should not have the right to buy a seat for any American willing to accept therisks of taking the ride.
It may be that no issue today has greater long-term significance for our country and for mankind than the commercial development and free world control of the orbital space between Terra and the Moon. Though much of our motivation in funding space development is political, the result is beneficial in bringing us closer to the vast resources of space. LEO (Low Earth Orbit), GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit), the LaGrange points, and the Moon comprise the high ground on the battlefield of the 21st Century. In all things political, economic, and military on earth, the nation or other organization which controls those places will inevitably dominate the world. The factors which more than any other will secure that control are permanent occupation and extent of use.
SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, called "Star Wars", is critical research in our effort to be "Top Gun" in space, as well as "Top Dog", not because we need any specific weapon, but because of the knowledge we will acquire about high energy propagation systems, electronics warfare radars, computers, and control systems, and the insights we will gain from observing unpredicted effects of these devices. However, the benefits of all these advances are realizable only through their value as elements of an on-going commercial and colonial expansion into space.
Though SDI research is highly beneficial apart from weaponry, the notion that any weapon is the most critical factor in securing control of the high ground of space is fallacious. It is well known that any orbiting device now in space could conceivably be destroyed by an off-the-shelf commercial rocket loaded with a hand grenade and 100 kilos of 6-penny nails. The existing hundreds of venerable Soviet SL-6’s would work just fine, since even a satellite with the best ray-gun could not get the one which put the nails into its orbit retrograde from the other side of the earth. As for stopping that locust-plague of incoming planet-killer ICBM’s, it is clear the only acceptable outcome of firing ICBM’s is they must all be prevented from reaching their targets...not only theirs, but also ours, for the sake of Terra and Mankind. Clearly, we can not trust that to any technology, no matter how well funded. That victory can be won only by our agreeing not to fire them at all, that is, not by making war, but by making peace.
Control of the high ground of space will fall to the nation or other organization which is able to most quickly and most effectively establish bases of permanent presence and paying commercial development. Building the Space Station and doing both business and research there on an expanding basis may be the most important step we could make toward increasing world peace, prosperity, and development through the aggressive non-violent competition among nations of all political persuasions to open the greatest frontier of all. The Space Station could be the first American Embassy and Trading Post in the New Free World of Inter-Lunar Space. To be American is to be a frontiersman; we belong out there!
Opponents of the American Space Program leave out three important factors in their political and bureaucratic reasons why the Space Station shouldn’t be built: the past, the future, and the American people. In our country’s first century, mastery of the sea meant world control. Calvin Coolidge inquired when asked to fund America’s first Army airplanes, "Why not buy one and let the pilots take turns flying it?" General Billy Mitchell was cashiered for declaring his superiors irresponsible for the same kind of short-sighted political-expedient reasoning. But when war compelled the bureaucrats to take a second seat to the engineers and entrepreneurs, American air power won World War II, and has been the controlling factor in all military and commerce since.
Letting Russia or Japan or anyone else have controlling presence in space is like being able to build the best ships in the world, but refusing to go to sea. It is abdication of world power. In the next century, military, economic, and thus political control will belong to the nation or other organization which controls the "high ground" of space. In America, elections are won by championing that which moves the people this week. Most space experts and activists are level-headed, cool-tempered people who have no use for hype, hokum, or ballyhoo. But we Americans in general seem most moved by sports, TV soap-opera politics, fantasy rocket-jet-fighter adventures, give-away shows, Pop Celebrity, and Western-style nationalistic morality plays about heroes in epic confrontation. The American space program’s best public advocate was probably Gene Roddenberry, and they didn’t even know it. American space development can only succeed if it is supported enthusiastically by the general American public, and they will only support it in terms of their own perceptions and interests. Kennedy hit it right on the head: "Hey, let’s have a race to the moon!" No matter how good our unmanned scientific and military space equipment is, Americans will be moved only by seeing Americans working in space, in TV-broadcast competition, and making money doing it. The permanent presence of an American Space Station may be the best way to hold interest of America, and also the best base of opportunity for small entrepreneural access to space.
As long as the argument is whether the Defense Department can have exclusive use of space or a few big science corporations can go also, the American people are not going to be moved to enthusiasm. In the interest of promoting that grassroots space activism, let us raffle a seat on a future mission of the Space Shuttle, by making it the best-paying 500 pound payload NASA can find anywhere, and demanding the American Citizen’s right to access to space. When the price of a ticket will get you a chance to be "The First American Nobody-Special In Space" we believe Americans will get involved at the grassroots level, and that is after all where most of us live.