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The Last Shuttle Launch

One giant leap backwards.

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Places for children in the NASA viewing stands are hard to come by, reserved mostly for astronaut offspring. But I argued that if you’re going to promote the coolest thing in the world you need testimony from someone who really uses those words in daily speech. The Space Foundation put us in touch with the John H. Glenn Research Center, which is, among other things, NASA’s main propulsion test facility, and let’s hope they have something to propel soon. James M. Free, the deputy director, extended invitations, and Cliff became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s most vocal advocate​—​after his power of speech returned.

Two nights before the launch the Glenn Center hosted a reception in Cocoa Beach. Actual astronauts were in attendance, including Rick Mastracchio, who has been on three shuttle missions and done at least three space walks. He was wearing his blue NASA flight suit. I introduced Cliff, and Cliff came right to the point about the cancellation of the shuttle program. Well, not right to the point. He had some questions of greater seven-year-old importance to ask first. “When you were weightless, did you do a flip?”

“I sure did,” Mastracchio said.

“Did you do a ‘Misty’?” asked Cliff.

Mastracchio looked puzzled. “A snowboarding term,” I explained. “A back flip with a 540-degree spin.”

“Good idea,” said Mastracchio. “I’ll try it next time.”

But Cliff knew there won’t be a lot of next times. Only four Americans a year will fly on the Soyuz. A decade ago the astronaut corps had about 150 men and women; now there are 61.

Cliff said, “Why are they putting the shuttle down?”

It was a nice choice of phrase. A country boy knows what happens to old or unwanted animals, and he combined that with the term for a schoolyard diss​—​the space geeks being razzed by the popular kids from the Oval Office and the Hill.

Mastracchio answered diplomatically. NASA is working on a new heavy-lift rocket. (Though it probably won’t be ready until 2020, leaving budget-cutters plenty of time to work.) Private commercial manned flights are on the way. (But not before 2016, and only if Congress is willing to pay for seats on board.) “By the time you’re ready to be an astronaut,” Mastracchio said, “there will be plenty of ways to go to space.”

Cliff was not convinced. “Is the government,” he asked, “just being mean?”

A significant glance was exchanged between astronaut and parent over Cliff’s head.

So enough’s enough, Christopher Columbus. Four voyages were plenty. The natives are crabby. There’s no gold out there. And Don Quixote needs meds. Sancho Panza’s pension plan has to be fully funded. A wide variety of social and educational initiatives are necessary for Dulcinea to achieve her full potential as a wench. Anyway, if we need to go to the New World again, Sir Francis Drake would consider having a Spaniard onboard to be a real prize. 

On July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. I was in my off-campus apartment staring at a black and white portable TV, a can of Budweiser in my hand. “One small step .  .  . ” I remember every detail. Where were you and what were you doing when Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law? Medicare cost $523 billion in 2010. NASA cost $18.7 billion, just 0.6 percent of federal spending. In fact, since NASA’s founding in 1958, its total spending has barely exceeded what we pay for Medicare per annum. Would you rather reach into infinity for 53 years or get old and sick for 12 months? In 2011 each American will give NASA about $60​—​the sun, the moon, and the stars for less than the price of a month of basic cable.

Oh, maybe it’s a waste of taxpayer money. But government wastes taxpayer money. This is what government does. It can’t be changed. Our earliest evidence of government, in the ruins of Babylon and Egypt, shows nothing but ziggurats and pyramids of wasted taxpayer money, the TARP funds and shovel-ready stimulus programs of their day. Let’s waste taxpayer money putting that look back on Cliff’s face. 

P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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