An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

August 25, 2008

My $17,000,000 Photograph

Friday morning found me wide awake at 4:45 a.m. on Virginia's beautiful Eastern Shore fiddling with the fireworks feature on my camera. My son, my parents and I piled into the back of my dad's truck and headed to the edge of Metompkin Bay to watch an unmanned rocket launch from NASA's nearby Wallop's Island. These events are not uncommon, even pre-dawn launches. However, word on the Shore was that this rocket was doomed to failure. Alliant Techsystems, Inc. which has been working with NASA, was said to be under a deadline to get this bird in the air, and perhaps they overlooked some details necessary for success. The word on the Shore also had it that NASA would go ahead and attempt launch even thought its confidence was not high, and that a finger would be kept on the self-destruct button. The promise of an early morning light show, especially with the potential for explosions, brought aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and strangers together at the water's edge.

At 5:10 a.m. the horizon suddenly was aglow with the gold light of ignition. The rocket lifted off slowly at first, but quickly gained speed as it left the island heading up and over the Atlantic. Shortly after take off, and apparently to no one's surprise, the rocket was off course and at 27 seconds that self-destruct button was pressed. The explosion illuminated the water below and we could see rocket chunks hitting the water. A large section landed on Assawoman Island and continued to burn for some time. The show was over in just a few minutes and everyone went back to their homes, some back to bed and some up for the day. On Saturday local TV news and the newspaper warned against touching any rocket parts as they might contain hazardous chemicals. They also mentioned that there were $17,000,000 worth of experiments on board, most dealing with hypersonic flight and another unrelated experiment for the Navy. That figure does not include the cost of the rocket, and neither NASA or Alliant is telling what that number is.

I am at a point in my life that I worry about scraps of paper that can't be recycled, and I try real hard to decline every plastic bag given to me by store clerks. It is also with some reluctance that I apply herbicides throughout the nursery, because I know what it does to earthworms and frogs. I think about stuff like this, and then I get to witness such an incredible waste of money and resources, not to mention what may have fallen on the island or fouled the waters. However, what is most troubling was that this failure was expected and they continued regardless.


  1. Hiya Les,

    Puzzling Priorities:

    Those astronomical figures are beyond me. However, this seems 'cheap' compared to 200 billion of whatever denomination for the Bejing games.

    (Or the sums spent and to be spent on ours. I am proud of the achievements of our cyclists, but I would also like to be able to get to places without a car. One bus per week out here is a little scary).

  2. And yet, they want our money to pay for this and other absurdities. What a waste. Heaven help us.
    I try to be live in a responsible way too. I recycle, redo, re purpose and grow our food.

  3. Yeah, I don't get it either, Les--did you ever see the movie "Dave"? This sort of thing makes you believe that anyone with common sense and decent math skills could trim bazillions from the federal budget . . . Anyway, it's a nice photograph . . .

  4. Les, it does sound like such waste. It distresses me when you think how underfunded education and other good causes are. What about universal health insurance? I still think R&D is important, especially in science, but you'd hope it was being spent wisely. Cool photo, though.

  5. OMG, as the kids say. Waste indeed. You know, I once spent a summer temping with Alliant, based in Minnesota (I am from MN). All I did was data entry for orders and such, but I couldn't help feeling that--as I found out what the company did slowly but surely--I had my hands on some juicy stuff. Every day I walked by a torpedo in a glass case. This gave me a clue. Those were the innocent days of college summer work.

  6. Wow that's really nuts. Sooo much money. Sigh.

    Okay, Assawoman? That's the craziest name ever. I imagine there have been many jokes.

  7. Joco,
    I have been wondering just how the UK will approach the Olympics. China has a lot of money to burn and they certainly put on a good show.

    Not that it matters, but a good part of the wasted money was private funds - but waste is waste.

    Thanks and when will we get to see some Scandanavian shots?

    I agree totally.

    My guilty summer job was working for a machinery manufacturer. We made giant thrashers, choppers and fumigation chambers to provide to tobacco companies, making it easier for people to smoke.

    Assawoman is an Native American name and perhaps its meaning is lost to the ages. My great grandmother lived there and I am told that very few people would admit it, they would usually use the name of a neighboring town on forms and documents.