CHICAGO - NASA's deliberations about when to resume space shuttle flights bring to mind the New Yorker cartoon of an executive on the phone, looking at his calendar and saying, "How about never? Does never work for you?"
After spending 2 1/2 years and huge amounts of money to prevent a recurrence of the problem that destroyed the last shuttle, the agency now finds the problem has recurred. If NASA takes appropriate action, though, it won't happen on the next shuttle flight, because there won't be a next shuttle flight.
With luck, the seven astronauts aboard Discovery will return safely to Earth next week. But even if it ends happily, the mission can only be described as a disaster. On the first day, agency personnel were elated by the sight of the craft soaring into orbit. On the second day, they were disconsolate at the news that, once again, a dangerously large chunk of insulating foam fell off the external fuel tank during the launch.
An inspection revealed no appreciable damage to the spacecraft. But NASA had to announce it will stop flights until it can devise a remedy. "We decided it was safe to fly as is," said William Parsons, who heads the program. "Obviously, we were wrong."
"Obviously, we were wrong" could serve as the epitaph for the entire space shuttle program, which has never lived up to expectations and has rarely justified its existence. In recent years, it has become a gold-plated Corvair - obsolete, horrendously expensive and unsafe at any speed.
The cost of each launch has turned out to be 100 times greater than originally planned. And this latest scare occurred after NASA spent $1.4 billion to enhance safety.
When the program began a generation ago, the shuttles were supposed to make space travel routine, with weekly launches. As it happened, there have been only 114 flights over the last 24 years, a rate of less than five annually. Worse still, two of the first 113 ended in catastrophe.
By contrast, as a Federal Aviation Administration official noted after the Columbia accident, the commercial aviation industry operated 11 million flights in 2000 without a single death. If airlines had the same accident rate as the shuttle program, he said, "we would lose 40 of those airplanes every day."
The risk might be worth it for some bold mission to the moon or Mars. But what purpose does the space shuttle serve at this point? It travels to the International Space Station, another expensive venture of dubious value.
All this is supposed to advance crucial scientific research. But physicist Robert Park of the American Physical Society snorts at that claim. "There is no experiment that has been done on the space shuttle that has made a significant difference to any field of science," he told The Wall Street Journal.
On a 1998 shuttle mission, astronauts studied how micro-gravity affected chewing gum, crayons and popcorn - experiments proposed by elementary school students. For this we're risking lives?
The little-known secret of the shuttle is that it's an airborne moving van, whose main role is to haul parts, supplies and other cargo to the International Space Station. Among the tasks assigned to the astronauts on Discovery is picking up the space station's garbage.
The space station is one of those ventures that seemed like a good idea at the outset but continues mainly due to force of inertia. While it produces little if any cutting-edge science, it also fails to inspire Americans with the romance of space exploration since it merely chugs along in orbit, with a small crew performing experiments that could be done by machines.
Maybe NASA needs to scrap the shuttle and try to develop a modern craft with modern technology. Maybe it should focus more on unmanned craft, like those that have gone to Mars and Saturn. Or maybe we should let private companies take on some of the jobs that are now being carried out by a government agency.
The shuttle program has proved beyond all doubt that its risks far outweigh its value. We should all hope that Discovery makes a safe return to Earth - and never leaves again.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.