... is the wonderfully evocative title of a new article at Washington Monthly, a center left public policy magazine. The subject is the Obama administration's move to 'privatize' orbit lift, particularly human orbit lift, corollary to abandoning the 'Constellation' program for a return to the Moon by 2020, a program that was instead well on trajectory to a truly spectacular boondoggle. The article's author, Charles Homans, duly beats up on the Bush administration, so I don't have to.
He also has fun with the ideological twists of space politics, but I think he overstates them, as 'privatization' is overstated. US boosters and spacecraft have always been designed and built by private firms under government contract, and nothing is going to change about that.
What I believe is really going on is a pragmatic rebooting of engineering cultures. NASA's human spaceflight shop took form in the Apollo years, and as Homan notes, it operated in a budget free environment. Engineers were tasked with an assignment - going to the Moon - and built what they needed to do it, with cost no object. It fostered a tendency to design to the max, which worked so long as the money flowed.
Once the money quit flowing, US human spaceflight development fell into a notorious cycle of designs that get compromised to save money, perform below expectations because they were compromised, thus end up costing more anyway, and either limp along or get canceled.
It isn't entirely bleak. Thee ISS suffered all these design ills, and has ended up much more expensive and much less capable than when first envisioned, yet it is not limping along, but instead soaring along rather splendidly. When it comes to a Shuttle replacement, though, we can't afford that cycle. (Well, 'we' for a good part of my readership.)
In fact, come to think of it, the NASA cycle was probably inevitable, not pathological. Those things happen on a smaller scale in any shop pushing engineering limits: failed and abandoned projects litter the boneyard.
But when it comes to basic orbital access, we can't afford that cycle and don't need to, at least not on remotely that scale, because the mission requirement is basic. The basic orbital ferry mission is go up to the ISS, dock, and come back safely. The ferry doesn't need to operate independently for more than a day, so life support can be basic and habitability minimal, spam in a can airline type seats. Even the docking collar can be simplified, because the ferry can be snagged by a Canadarm and eased into place.
James Oberg (I almost wrote 'Oberth') goes into all this in some depth. But I think he gets a bit out of his depth about the PR and politics of failure tolerance. Spectacular aborts, say the booster exploding on ascent, will cause a media and Congressional hoodoo even if the crew ends up safely in the drink. (After which I for one would certainly want a drink.) The ensuing public uproar is basic primate house behavior in its characteristic 'Murrican form, and entirely predictable, so it should be anticipated in advance.
The real point, though, is that designing a practical, safe, (relatively) cheap orbital ferry calls for a very different engineering approach than pushing the frontier does. So it makes sense to task it to a different shop. And that, I think, is what is really going on with the new policy. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the end of 'The Wealth of Constellations,' Homans comes down against human spaceflight, though in a perfunctory way as though his heart were not really in it. But as so often, he thoroughly misunderstands human spaceflight and its short and mid-term goals and objectives. He plays the standard rag on the small amount of 'science' accomplished aboard the ISS, which is about like asking how much 'science' was done by the X-15.
Science will, in due time, be done by deep space craft that permit us to examine other worlds close up, directly and interactively, not with minutes of light lag. The ISS is about learning to operate a class of scientific instruments.
Whether or not they also get used for tourism, mining, or primate house misconduct is another matter, not bearing on their value to science.
The image of the ISS, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, is nicely entitled 'A Large Space Station Over Earth.'
Bonus Science News: With proviso that science reporting in the general mass media is not known for understatement, now they are saying that our ancestors of fully modern human type did interbreed with Neanderthals, after all.
Or at least some of us did. Apparently Europeans and east Asians have Neanderthal blood, to use the old fashioned expression, while Africans do not.