What's it all about? Many fingers in the Shuttle pie

What are we doing in space? In the wake of the Columbia disaster, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has told America that "every piece of evidence" will be examined to determine the cause of "this horrible accident."

But even before the flags go back to full staff, NASA will be forced to shift its attention. Very shortly, O'Keefe will be summoned to Capitol Hill to answer bigger (and, in some ways, even more painful) questions than what caused the explosion that killed seven astronauts and destroyed a multi-billion-dollar piece of government equipment.

It does no disservice to the astronauts' bravery, their dedication, or their patriotism to hope that our elected officials have the guts to ask O'Keefe the tough questions: Why do we even have space shuttles? What is the goal of manned space flight? What do space shuttles do up there that cannot be done remotely from Earth or by less sophisticated unmanned rockets? Are we really going to Mars? And why the hell would we want to do that?

And the most important question of all: Why are so many experiments aboard NASA spacecraft contracted out to private, profit-making companies?

These questions were relevant long before Columbia disintegrated over Texas, but have been left unasked because of public indifference. There's a reason, I think, that shuttle takeoffs and landings are not even a blip on public radar screens anymore. Many commentators see this development as an inevitable result of space travel becoming "routine." But suppose it's something bigger. Suppose the public has lost interest in the shuttle fleets' coming and goings because the shuttles give us nothing to be interested in?

In 11 pages of coverage in Sunday's New York Times– that's 11 broadsheet pages in a paper that prides itself on attention to detail– there was not a single word devoted to what the Columbia was doing in space in the first place. The Paper of Record offered no coverage of Columbia's vital "mission"– which left the distasteful impression that the mission simply wasn't that vital.

There was, however, one article devoted to a handful of "experiments" placed aboard Columbia as part of an education program for school kids. One of the ways NASA keeps the shuttle popular in the public imagination is by letting students send all manner of earthly detritus into space– an anthill here, a New York City subway fare card with a magnetic strip there– to see what effect the zero-gravity conditions will have on it.

Because Columbia exploded, those school kids will never learn whether straphangers will lose their fare in the event that their Metrocard mysteriously slips out of their wallets and ends up in outer space. They'll never know whether spiders build their webs differently in zero-gravity. They'll never know if carpenter bees interact less socially in weightlessness.

And students at the Shoshone-Bannock High School in Fort Hall, Idaho, will never find out the results of their experiment, "More Fun with Urine"– a follow-up to their original experiment, "Fun with Urine," which sought to find out whether urine could be used for watering plants in space.

Fun with urine. A piece of elementary school propaganda– on the taxpayer dime.

Obviously, the school kids were not the only ones with knowledge to glean from Columbia. But I needed to go to the NASA website to find out what this shuttle's business was in the heavens. What I found was not convincing evidence of the space program's importance.

Genuine science experiments aboard Columbia were contained in a new SPACEHAB Research Double Module, or RDM.

SPACEHAB sounds like just another of NASA's colorful acronyms, but it's actually the name of a company– a private, profit-making company whose NASDAQ symbol is SPAB– that bills itself as "the leading provider of commercial space services."

The company's slogan is "We mean business in space." The company's goal is to turn space into just another strip mall, with itself as the landlord. (SPACEHAB stock closed at $ 0.98 on Friday, up $ .025. I don't expect the stock to trade well this week.)

"Within the next three years," according to the SPACEHAB website, the company "will launch the first commercially developed and operated module to the International Space Station, creating an opportunity for business enterprise... It is from this module that SPACEHAB will conduct the largest scale business-to-business enterprise ever attempted in human space flight."

I hope my Congressman will have the guts to ask Sean O'Keefe what that means.

But SPACEHAB is devoted to more than making a profit from private experiments in space. The company is also deeply involved in space tourism.

"Although most people will never have the opportunity to visit space, they will now be able to experience space virtually through [SPACEHAB's] orbiting multimedia studio [which] will create content and virtual reality that is focused on the excitement, insight, and unlimited horizons of space exploration."

I hope my Congressman will have the guts to ask Sean O'Keefe why NASA is involved with a company that wants to build an EPCOT center in space.

Does SPACEHAB do any good? Of course– especially if you're a SPACEHAB stockholder. The RDM that Columbia was carrying contained 59 separate experiments– 21 of which were wholly commercial in nature. That means that 36 percent of the SPACEHAB's cargo was aboard Columbia solely to make money for SPACEHAB, Inc.

In addition, the European Space Agency had 14 investigations aboard our shuttle (which means that the Europeans like us when we're flying their experiments into outer space, even if they don't like us when we're flying fighter jets over their airspace).

NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research had 23 of the shuttle's experiments, less than 40 percent. And what were these experiments? Three involved "the physics of combustion, soot production, and fire quenching processes in microgravity." I hope my Congressman has the guts to ask Sean O'Keefe how humanity is served by fire-prevention experiments that study conditions that don't exist here on Earth.

Another experiment "will use pressurized liquid xenon to mimic the behaviors of more complex fluids such as blood flowing through capillaries." Again, I hope my Congressman will ask O'Keefe why we need to go to space to "mimic" blood flowing through capillaries when there billions of miles of functioning capillaries here on Earth.

And another experiment, according to NASA, would have evaluated "the commercial usefulness of plant products grown in space." I'm sure everyone's Congressman will want to know whether NASA is trying to cut into SPACEHAB's business with its own private-public partnership.

Buried on SPACEHAB's website was a question-and-answer exchange that, until Saturday morning, was completely innocuous.

"How many missions have the SPACEHAB modules flown aboard the space shuttle fleet?" the question asked.

The answer? "As of November 2002, SPACEHAB modules have flown 17 missions aboard the space shuttle fleet, all of them successful."

We now know that that answer will have to be rewritten. And I hope my Congressman has the guts to ask Sean O'Keefe how we're going to rewrite the NASA mission statement.