Friday, August 05, 2005

The trials and tribulations of the shuttle

I’m never normally short of a word or two to say on the subject of the shuttle. Before the recent launch of Discovery, I reminded Economist readers why the shuttle was an ancient and unreliable vehicle that had to go. It seemed timely to explain that the only thing really keeping the shuttle programme going is the desire to complete as much as possible of the space station—which is literally a pointless waste of space.

Winging it, Jul 14th 2005
The shuttle is soon to return America to human space flight. But it must be grounded

In August, as Discovery was finally launched to the sound of debris popping off the shuttle’s external tank. There was intense media interest in the story—far too much in my opinion. The normally brilliant New York Times leading the pack with an exhausting, and exhaustive, blow-by-blow account of the mission in which no factoid was too trivial to be unearthed and speculated on at great length.

But every outlet was to blame. To “oohs” and “aahs” from a gasping audience of millions we were regaled with the minutiae of a shuttle trip thrown into stark relief because we were all given the impression of imminent danger. It was news as theatre at its very best. What is wrong with this was that after the launch it was clear that it was the safest in years as the debris shedding that caused the crash of Columbia had been greatly reduced. The other big change was that the shuttle was bristling with monitors and was photographed and filmed intensely througout its flight. We all were given plenty of graphic images to fret about.

So it pains me greatly to admit that I too joined the throng of those contributing to the excess of column drama inches with an excessively long piece about the details of Discovery’s flight. It was written under protest. I may have thought that there was nothing of interest to write about the shuttle that week, but I was firmly reminded that this was news.

But the only reason it was news was because we wrote about it all so much. Sigh.

Onwards and downwards, Aug 4th 2005
A near miss for the shuttle and red faces at NASA