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How Newsworthy are NASA Space Flights?

Karol and I and our nine-year-old, Thomas, are in Houston visiting the Johnson Space Center.  Thomas is fascinated with astronomy and space travel.

I’m impressed with the exhibits and activities available to tourists here.

But why is NASA so self-congratulatory these days?  Why is the current shuttle mission (STS-121) so newsworthy?  Why is any shuttle mission newsworthy?  Space travel — old news; big deal; been there and done that; yawn.

Oooops!  Sorry.  Of course even the most routine space shuttle flight (or an "STS" as each one is called here in Houston) is a marvel of human achievement.  Nevertheless, I continue to insist that space-shuttle flights are no longer as newsworthy as NASA makes them out to be.

Here’s a short essay that I wrote a few years ago on this matter.  (Note that this essay was written before the February 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedy.)  Here’s my main point:

It’s true, of course, that each shuttle flight is a marvelous achievement of human ingenuity — scientific and organizational — but our world is a barrage of similar achievements, almost all of which we regard as mundane and not the least bit newsworthy.  There’s nothing so special about shuttle flights to distinguish them from any of the cornucopia of other wonders that we encounter daily.

Is the flight of a shuttle a greater wonder than the flight of a Boeing 747?  Each time a 747-400 takes off, 437 tons of steel, plastic, cloth, fuel, cargo, and people rise gracefully into the sky.  Meals are served and movies are watched.  Passengers eat, sleep, work, sip cocktails, relax, and chit-chat as if  whizzing through the air seven miles above the earth’s surface at nearly 600 miles per hour is among the most natural of human situations.