At NASA, an Emily Litella moment

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Emily Litella, as you may recall, was the character on Saturday Night Live who delivered stirring diatribes until she realized that she had totally misunderstood the issue and then said squeakily, "Never mind." Today's Emily Litella is NASA Administrator Daniel Griffin, who, according to USA Today, "said that NASA lost its way in the 1970s, when the agency ended the Apollo moon missions in favor of developing the shuttle and space station, which can only orbit Earth. 'It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path,' Griffin said. 'We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can.' "

I'm no expert on space, but this rings true to me. We're using 1970s technology and materials science to put up a manned vehicle on which highly talented people conduct not very important experiments. I mention materials science becausethe space shuttle has proved to be vulnerable as a result of the tiles on its underside that must after every flight be replaced and repaired by hand (!). That's Renaissance-era technology; I'll bet that materials science today could produce better and more easily repaired heat shields. But this is not a conclusion I've come to recently: It's the result of reading Gregg Easterbrook's prescient article on the space shuttle in the Charles Peters-era Washington Monthly. Key paragraph:

"The main cause of delay is currently the shuttle's refractory tiles, which disperse the heat of re-entry from the ship's nose and fuselage. Columbia must be fitted out with 33,000 of these tiles, each to be applied individually, each unique in shape. The inch-thick tiles, made of pyrolized carbon, are amazing in two respects. They can be several hundred degrees hot on one side while remaining cool to the touch on the other. They do not boil away like the ablative heat shieldings of capsules and modules; they can be used indefinitely. But they're also a bit of a letdown in another respect–they're so fragile you can hardly touch them without shattering them."

We should have listened to Easterbrook 25 years ago.