The shuttle’s coming back tomorrow or Tuesday, depending on weather, if they have no other problems. Let’s pray that they don’t. After it returns, who knows? Best case scenario, NASA spends a few more millions, fixes the foam problem more successfully, the shuttle flies again until its next serious problem.
I stand behind no one in my enthusiasm for space flight. I’d much rather federal money go to unmanned space exploration and even manned space exploration than many other government programs, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer pleasure it provides earthbound humans.
But let’s face it: the shuttle program by any standard is a gigantic disaster. A mistake. The space station is an even bigger one: it’s pointless in the extreme. It can’t even serve as a meaningful preparation for more ambitious human activities in space in its current form. It exists at this point because it has attracted a sufficient client base that making it not exist would require expending considerable political capital.
There are a lot of institutional programs like that. It’s not just a “government” thing. Companies do it, universities do it, any human organization does it. A program gets started with the best of intentions, or as an attempt to politically manage an earlier era of controversy and conflict. The program creates its own political base in short order. Getting rid of it at that point, even if it makes no sense to anyone save those who receive direct benefits, is extremely difficult. The state of Pennsylvania, among its many governmental follies, has monopolized liquor and wine sales. The entire program is profoundly stupid and serves no genuine public interest, almost everyone knows it, but it’s nearly impossible to eliminate because the state liquor bureaucracy is a significant employer in parts of the state where very few other sources of employment exist.
Call this post an early 21st-Century search for “Profiles in Courage”: I’m interested in examples of government officials, bureaucratic authorities or institutional leaders who in relatively recent times have been willing, in a relatively disinterested and nonpartisan manner, to say that some program supported by their own party or colleagues or organization was a mistake, have been willing to take the heat for the waste and loss of investment in the mistake, and have been able to see through the dismantling of the mistake even to the point of losing their jobs or office over it. This has more than a little relevance to our current political situation: the major suspense about the American political future is about who is going to be stuck having to be a grown-up about past mistakes.
I’m honestly curious about and eager to hear about good examples of people in power who’ve stepped up to the plate when it’s clear that some very costly and possibly well-meaning project is just not going to work.