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Lit Up For Liftoff?

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By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, August 3, 2007

Someone's gotta do it. No one's gonna do it. So I'll do it. Your honor, I rise in defense of drunken astronauts.

You've all heard the reports, delivered in scandalized tones on the evening news or as guaranteed punch lines for the late-night comics, that at least two astronauts had alcohol in their systems before flights. A stern and sober NASA has assured an anxious nation that this matter, uncovered by a NASA-commissioned study, will be thoroughly looked into and appropriately dealt with.

To which I say: Come off it. I know NASA has to get grim and do the responsible thing, but as counsel for the defense -- the only counsel for the defense, as far as I can tell -- I place before the jury the following considerations:

Have you ever been to the shuttle launch pad? Have you ever seen that beautiful and preposterous thing the astronauts ride? Imagine it's you sitting on top of a 12-story winged tube bolted to a gigantic canister filled with 2 million liters of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Then picture your own buddies -- the "closeout crew" -- who met you at the pad, fastened your emergency chute, strapped you into your launch seat, sealed the hatch and waved smiling to you through the window. Having left you lashed to what is the largest bomb on planet Earth, they then proceed 200 feet down the elevator and drive not one, not two, but three miles away to watch as the button is pressed that lights the candle that ignites the fuel that blows you into space.

Three miles! That's how far they calculate they must go to be beyond the radius of incineration should anything go awry on the launch pad on which, I remind you, these insanely brave people are sitting. Would you not want to be a bit soused? Would you be all aflutter if you discovered that a couple of astronauts -- out of dozens -- were mildly so? I dare say that if the standards of today's fussy flight surgeons had been applied to pilots showing up for morning duty in the Battle of Britain, the signs in Piccadilly would today be in German.

Cut these cowboys some slack. These are not wobbly Northwest Airlines pilots trying to get off the runway and steer through clouds and densely occupied airspace. An ascending space shuttle, I assure you, encounters very little traffic. And for much of liftoff, the astronaut is little more than spam in a can -- not pilot but guinea pig. With opposable thumbs, to be sure, yet with only one specific task: to come out alive.

And by the time the astronauts get to the part of the journey that requires delicate and skillful maneuvering -- docking with the international space station, outdoor plumbing repairs in zero-G -- they will long ago have peed the demon rum into their recycling units.

Okay?

The most dismaying part of this brouhaha is not the tipsy Captain Kirk or two but the fact that space makes the news today only as mini-scandal or farce. It all started out as a great romance in the 1960s, yet by the 1970s -- indeed, the morning after the 1969 moon landing -- romance had turned to boredom.

When the Apollo 13 astronauts gave their live broadcast from space, not a single network carried it. No interest. Until, that is, the explosion that nearly killed them, at which point the world tuned in with rapt and morbid attention.

Well, we are now in stage three of our space odyssey: mockery and amusement. The last big space story was the crazed lady astronaut on her diapered drive to a fatal-attraction rendezvous.

It's hard to entirely blame this state of affairs on a fickle public. Blame also belongs to the idiot politicians who decided 30 years ago to abandon the moon and send us on a pointless and endless journey into low Earth orbit. President Bush has sensibly called an end to this nonsense and committed us to going back to the moon and, ultimately, to Mars. If his successors don't screw it up, within 10 years NASA will have us back to where we belong -- on other worlds.

At which point, we'll remember why we did this in the first place. And when we once again thrill at seeing humans on the moon -- this time, making it their home -- we won't much care whether the extra bounce in their gait is the effect of the one-sixth gravity or a touch of moonshine.

letters@charleskrauthammer.com


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