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Astronaut Economics


What the space program can tell us about the recovery.

On Saturday afternoon, the STS-119 Discovery arrived home at Kennedy Space Center, just an hour's drive from Orlando. I've lived in Florida for almost 11 years now, and the thrill of having the space program in your backyard never disappears. Just after 3 p.m., my windows shook as the shuttle passed over central Florida; I clearly heard the sonic boom.

After a successful 13-day mission to deliver solar panels to the International Space Station, the STS-119 had travelled approximately 5.3 million miles. Travelling at 2.5 times the speed of sound as it hurtled back to Earth, seemed like an apt symbol of our current economy - and the NASA commentators, with their language of "high-flying", "steep dive", and "return to normal," only pointed up the similarities.

I think the idea of the "glide path" is especially apt: This is the viciously inefficient sail plane the shuttle follows as it basically plummets back toward the earth, and it can't be helped by thrust. Commanders must get the glide path right the first time, because there is no such thing as a second chance.

Economically, too, we have so much at stake. We've been flying so high, but are hurtling downward at a terrifying speed. But we haven't practiced the descent.

The Launch

The space shuttle uses a combination of fuels in its boosters and adjustment rockets; there's never a single thruster or fuel source. Similarly, we've been using the rocket fuel of greed, cheap money, fraud and unreason in our economic ascent.

For many, this steep growth trajectory felt natural, if not subtly intoxicating. It's the American dream, right? Can't a taxi driver flip condos? Can't a schoolteacher sell real estate and cash in? Think, too, of the people who quit their jobs to become day traders during the dot-com bubble.

Even those who didn't seek to profit believed it was okay to consume today, because we could always pay it off later. Why should my neighbor get a new kitchen with granite countertops and stainless-steel gas ranges when I have to cook on Formica counters and an electric stove? They aren't better than me, are they? A home equity loan can make this all better.

Debt -- from Bank of America (BAC), or Citigroup (C), or Wells Fargo (WFC) -- fueled all of these dreams. It was easy to blast into the orbit of "success," but we forgot about the loneliness of space - and the inevitable consequences of gravity. Driving up in the shiny new car was fun - but opening our credit-card statements from Visa (V) or Mastercard (MA) brought us quickly to earth. Interest payments on the debt meant we had less money to spend on productive tasks, or to save for a rainy day.
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