WASHINGTON, April 19 (UPI) -- The space shuttle Discovery flying piggyback on a Boeing 747 for its last hurrah flight around the Washington Monument and the White House was a grim reminder of misplaced and misspent priorities.
The storied 30-year space shuttle program, which began with the launch of Columbia, April 12, 1981, ended last July, when Atlantis landed back on Earth. Since then the price of a Russian taxi ride to reach the International Space Station aboard Soyuz spacecraft has skyrocketed from $55.8 million per seat with a guarantee of no less than six trips to 12 roundtrips for $753 million, or $63 million per seat, in 2013-14.
It was the U.S. space shuttles -- Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis -- and the 355 space flyers who flew 135 missions over 30 years that built, hunk by hunk, the football-field size lab in Earth orbit and launched the Hubble Space Telescope that allowed humanity to see billions of times farther into space than we ever could before.
The program's shutdown comes after blowing $1 trillion on the Iraq war that put Iran's mullahs in the driver's seat in Baghdad and half a trillion dollars (and counting) in Afghanistan, where the Taliban enemy, taking a page from the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, surprise attacked several widely scattered targets simultaneously.
The longest period of war in U.S. history, with its grim toll of 6,345 U.S. troops killed and 46,300 wounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan, unlike World War II, didn't produce hosannas of praise and gratitude. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, are dead, and still more injured.
By Afghan exit time in 2014, the two wars will have cost U.S. taxpayers $3 trillion.
America's "Outstanding Public Debt," as of 9:30 p.m. EDT, April 17 was $15,658,555,381,084.56 – that's almost $16 trillion. And it has been increasing $4 billion per day since Sept. 28, 2007.
Future historians will shake their heads in disbelief over the trillions thrown at Iraq and Afghanistan with very little to show for it -- except the biggest U.S. Embassy in the world in Baghdad originally built for 2,000 U.S. diplomats in residence (versus 87 next door at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey). Today it's an embarrassing white elephant.
These delusions of grandeur were inspired by U.S. President George W. Bush, who thought we had gone to Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein for trying to kill his father, President George H.W. Bush. To this day, the younger Bush doesn't seem to realize that Dick Cheney was both vice president and White House Svengali. Iraq was a sleight of hand for a different agenda.
This reporter was present at the vice president's house for dinner 11 months before the invasion of Iraq when the Iraq operation was described to me as "a done deal." It was to be part of a larger geostrategic plan known as "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," known as the "Clean Break" report written in 1996 by a study group of American "neocons," led by Richard Perle, for Binyamin Netanyahu, about to become prime minister of Israel for the first time.
"Realm" is Israel. The report's recommendations: Abandon "comprehensive peace" with the entire Arab world; renounce the Oslo accords on a Palestinian state negotiated by Yitzhak Rabin; annex the West Bank; eliminate Saddam Hussein.
The Israeli Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar warned that Perle and his co-writers "are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments … and Israeli interests." It was all in a good cause -- securing Israel. The idea was to surround Israel with pro-Western democracies that would give Israel a generation's worth of security.
Discovery's last journey to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport outside Washington was a grim reminder of where history may say we took a wrong turn.
What elicited the admiration of the world weren't U.S. feats of arms in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan (where 70 percent of Americans polled say we don't belong) or a "securing the realm" plan for Israel but the way we defeated the evil Soviet empire without war, along with feats of technological prowess and humanitarian assistance. The United States also launched the first American female and the first black astronauts into space.
Half a century after John Glenn rocketed into space on the first American manned orbital mission aboard Mercury, he added another milestone to space history when at the age of 77, he returned to space -- as a payload specialist aboard Discovery.
During the 213-hour flight, he participated in multiple experiments on the aging process in space to countering the effects of old age on Earth. A tad more useful for humanity than fruitless attempts to democratize Afghanistan.
All we need from Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar is a pledge to sever any link with al-Qaida terrorists. He did that three months before 9/11 -- but we still don't believe him. So why not test him instead of wasting blood and treasure through the end of 2014?