It was late, overbudget, and missed its turnaround time promise by a factor of five.
But its advocates knew it was the Shuttle or nothing. Their predecessors had sustained the Apollo program for more than a decade upon the firm assurance that getting white men to the moon, the moooon, should be budgeted under the heading of defending freedom. Of course, Congress eventually crunched the numbers and worked out that [NASA] wasn’t actually killing any Viet Cong whatsoever. The Shuttle people used a cleverer ruse: they spread its construction, and thus federal money, throughout the country. It had parts made in every state. I have no idea what’s in North Dakota or Maine that gets people into orbit, but they found something. And so Congress never wanted to cancel it, even when it was clearly the wrong idea. The Shuttle’s political engineering was a model of simplicity and reliability.
So people see space exploration as part of the military-industrial complex. And it is. Kind of.
Power wants what it doesn’t have, and it can’t have art. Art needs power’s materials and protection, but fears its responsibilities. Even when they come to terms, power never owns art, only a contract, and art is never safe, only sheltered. High on the cathedrals, the stonecarvers make satirical gargoyles. Space exploration is art, but we have to keep this secret. We must not say in public that it’s how humanity in a technological age reaches outside itself, how we find a mirror distant enough to see to our edges, how we face the void. Shhh.