By Mike Small

The week’s news is filled with vague nostalgia for the shuttle programme and even vaguer futurism about hotels on the moon. Yet as Somalians faces famine and austerity stalks Europe, systems crash and fail, let’s not be too downhearted. Manned space exploration was a very expensive Cold war PR exercise, as this ‘A Rocket to Nowhere’ brutally lays out, including the revelation that, amongst the important research they were doing they:

  • Sent cockroaches up to see how microgravity would affect their growth at various stages of their life cycle
  • Studied a “space rose” to see what kinds of essential oils it would produce in weightless environment. (in a triumph of technology transfer, this was later developed into a perfume).
  • At the suggestion of elementary school children, monitored everyday objects such as soap, crayons, and string to see whether their inertial mass would change in a weightless environment. Preliminary results suggest that Newton was right.
  • Monitored the growth of fish eggs and rice plants in space (orbital sushi?)
  • Tested new space appliances, including a space camcorder and space freezer
  • Checked to see whether melatonin would make the crew sleepy (it did not)

First Woolies, then News of the World, now Star Trek. What’s up next? Anyone for the Euro?

The Space Shuttle programme served the same purpose of making us think we’re going someplace. Get over it. This light balm of eye-wateringly expensive self-delusion might have been plausible whilst we talked of the ‘white heat of technology’, had J.T. Kirk and J.F.K at the helm, but now that we’re deep into climate chaos trauma, omnicide and trillions of pounds in hock, it’s all looking a little less fun. As Maciej Cegłowski puts it:

“When the Cold War fizzled out towards the end of the eighties, NASA rebranded the Shuttle as a way of jump-starting the leap of capitalism from the Earth’s surface to outer space, offering a variety of heavily subsidized research platforms for the private sector (which proved remarkably resistant to the allure of a manufacturing environment where raw materials cost $40,000/kg).”