News Kevin Myers

Thursday 8 December 2016

Kevin Myers: 'Space' Shuttle's 30-year lie is brought down to Earth at last

Published 27/07/2011 | 05:00

Last week the great 30-year lie of the Space Shuttle came to an end. The first lie is in the word "space", as in outer-space, which was precisely where the shuttle could not and did not go. The next lie is in the name of people aboard the shuttle: "astronaut". They did not go near a star: the 220-mile high orbit of a shuttle entitles them to call themselves astronauts just as much as a trip to Belfast by a Corkman entitles him to say that he is Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

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This is the hard thing for man to grasp (and I pretty much mean man: women are explorers in much the same way as they are symphonic-composers and landscape-painters). Our species has pretty much reached the limits of where we can go: and where we can go is simply not very far. If an ordinary person walks directly upwards instead of horizontally from the GPO in Dublin, they would have run out of oxygen by the time they had reached the height equivalent to Santry. Even a hardened mountaineer would perish by Dublin Airport. The sea is worse. Few people can cope unaided with the consequences of descending the depth of a GPO Doric column. And almost no one can manage to descend the full height of the building, without either crushing their lungs to spam, or blowing them into a raspberry mist on their return.

So, given our extreme physical limitations, it's not surprising that our journeys from the surface of this world are so rare and so very cautious. But since the budgets for these things depend on extravagant ambitions, it's not surprising that the scientists looking for US government money have always painted a glossier picture than reality justified. How much money would the Shuttle have got had it been named the New York-Boston vertical-shuttle, since it flies as high as those two cities are apart? Certainly not the $210bn that was spent on it in its lifetime, not to speak of the 14 lives lost on its nonsense. At least, what we now know about the perils of "space" travel fully reveals the astonishing courage of America's moonmen, and the scale of NASA's technological achievement back then.

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