I’m Not Going to Space

I grew up with the space program, literally.

According to my Mom’s account, she put me down for a nap so she could watch Alan Shepard make America’s first spaceflight. By the time John Glenn made the first full orbit in a NASA spacecraft, she had mastered the art of being a space fan and a Mom: She held my baby brother in her lap and gave him a bottle, while I nestled at her side on the couch with my sippy cup. At least that’s the way she told it, and I have no reason to doubt her. 

I probably saw just about every NASA flight after that, until I started school. By the time I was five I had learned to watch the liftoffs and splashdowns and ignore the “boring” stuff in-between. And I did get to see at least one liftoff at school. When I was in third grade our teacher decided that we should watch a rocket lift off. A TV cart was wheeled into our classroom (that’s how we did it back then) and we watched as the big rocket lit up and lifted off the launch pad. There were a few gasps as the first stage fell away–that’s how I knew which of my classmates had not seen a liftoff before. How was this possible?

Apollo 14 Command Module splashes down in the South Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: NASA.

Later that day a boy in my class confided to me that he had never seen a rocket lift off before. 

“Really?” I asked, incredulous. “They’re on all the time!” Well, they were in my house.

So from an early age I wanted to go to space. I didn’t have a plan for it, like becoming a pilot or a scientist, and it took a while before I realized it wasn’t merely a coincidence that all the the astronauts were men. I just thought it would really cool to go to space. 

In college I became friends with, and in our senior year roomed with, a young woman whose father was a technical instructor for a small airline. We were both fans of NASA, the Space Shuttle program was beginning, and she had access to her Dad’s copies of Aviation Week. We devoured those old magazines and any newspaper articles we could find. We decorated a table-top Christmas tree in our room with a tiny model Space Shuttle as a star and the perforated edging from green bar paper–supplied by a friend majoring in Computer Science–as garland.

We didn’t have a TV in our dorm room, so we begged the Dean of Students to let us use a classroom early in the morning to watch John Young and Robert Crippen lift off in Columbia. (We spread the word, but only three people joined us.)

Best of all, NASA recruited its first women astronauts. They were, of course, pilots and scientists. My roommate and I, majoring in Fashion Design and English, respectively, did not have terribly good prospects of going to space. But we were still fascinated and if anyone had offered the opportunity to go we would have jumped at it.

The Space Shuttle program proved both good and bad for amateur fans of NASA. On the positive side, regular launches to space resumed and the International Space Station gave humans a permanent outpost in Earth orbit. Women and people of color became astronauts, and the Payload Specialist role gave non-pilots an opportunity to fly on the Shuttle. On the negative side, space flight began to feel routine. Not every liftoff and landing was broadcast on TV, as the early flights had been. Some people began to question the value of space flight. And then the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

The famous “Earthrise” photo taken by astronauts aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Photo credit: NASA.

I spent a lot of time, it seemed, defending the human, financial and environmental costs of space flight. Exploration is risky; it always has been. Astronauts know the risks and willingly–even eagerly–go anyway. The financial cost is high, but the rewards have been great. I pointed out some of the benefits in technology and other fields, and when NASA published back issues [link is a large PDF] of Spinoff on their website I directed critics there. I reminded my environmentalist friends that global warming, long an obscure observation known only to a few scientists, had been championed by Dr. James Hansen of NASA and backed up by atmospheric data collected by–you guessed it–NASA. Satellites had revealed much of our own planet to us in ways not possible from the ground and have made weather forecasting much more accurate. The lives saved by satellite-assisted cyclone predictions probably justifies space exploration all by itself.

Some were persuaded, others not. I remained interested in space flight and I still would have welcomed any opportunity to fly myself.

The Space Shuttle program ended. How many NASA programs have I watched? Mercury (too young to know what I was watching), Gemini (learning), Apollo (definitely interested), and the Space Shuttle. And while the International Space Station still orbits, it’s the unmanned exploration that has been most interesting in recent years. But, still, it would be nice to go to space.

And then three billionaires built their own spacecraft to go to space–just barely to the edge of what we consider “outer space,” essentially recreating that first American manned flight by Alan Shepard. And I realized that I don’t want to go to space all that much.

Don’t get me wrong; I would still go if I were invited and had a reason to be there. But my arguments for risking the human, financial and (especially) environmental costs of a space flight went *poof* when the first billionaire and his guests took a joy ride above Earth’s atmosphere. 

What had they accomplished? Did they do research? Did they invent new technology? If they did, I haven’t read about it.

I realized in an instant that when I said I wanted to go to space I really meant that I wished I had a reason to go to space. I wish I had something to contribute. When I volunteered with the American Red Cross after the September 11 attacks, I knew I had something to contribute. I also knew that I had no business being at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, and would have been a danger to myself and others if I’d been there. I was much more useful doing data entry in an office in Brooklyn even if, as someone once told me to my face, I was “just a bureaucrat.” I like to think I was a bit more than that, but data entry and administration were the skills I came with. I didn’t belong at Ground Zero, just like I don’t belong in space.

If I ever go to space I want to be more than a tourist. And if I don’t have a genuine reason to be there, I’ll pass.

Ghost Bikes and the Value of Human Life

One year ago today I attended the dedication of a ghost bike honoring Alex Cordero, a seventeen-year-old who was killed when his bicycle was struck by a tow truck. I had seen ghost bikes before, and even helped maintain a couple by clearing weeds and touching up the paint, but this was the first time I’d attended a dedication. Alex was the sixteenth cyclist killed in New York City last year; ultimately there would be twenty-nine deaths. [Note that the link indicates 28. Even transportation-safety minded journalists had a difficult time keeping up. There’s a note at the end of the article that it was updated to show twenty-nine deaths.]

2019-09-05 Ghost Bike Dedication - Alex Cordero SAM_2980
I didn’t realize it when we assembled for the dedication but I was standing near Alex’s aunt (the woman in the grey t-shirt holding a bouquet). Photo © 2019 Karen E. Lund

I was drifting off to sleep the night before, thinking of the day’s news and of my plans for the dedication of the ghost bike to honor Alex. Half asleep, my mind attempted to find a connection between the previous weekend’s gun violence (nine people had been killed in Dayton and twenty-three in El Paso) and Alex’s death while riding his bicycle.

Eventually it fitted together. Not with an answer, but with a question: When did we decide to give more rights to steel than to human flesh? Was it a conscious decision? (Probably not.) Who decided? Continue reading

On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

My Girl Scout troop did a beach clean-up on Earth Day.

“What year?” some of you will ask. But that’s my point: it was the first year and we didn’t really think about whether there would be another.

With the 50th anniversary approaching, I decided that I would mark the day, in part, by taking a walk to that same beach. As it turned out, COVID-19 means New York City is “hibernating” (as I’ve chosen to call it) and there aren’t any other events happening today, except virtually. That’s just one of the things that’s changed since 1970. There was no virtual or online back then.

The biggest thing that’s changed is that the neighborhood that used to be there is gone. It was washed away by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and all but about a dozen homeowners took a buy-out and left. Someday it will be a New York City park (incorporated into Great Kills Park), with flood mitigation (PDF) infrastructure, but for now it’s just open space returning to the wild and a great place for a socially-distanced walk.

Paved driveway in foreground. Behind, Canada Geese on grass, trees, telephone wires. A house barely visible in the distance.
A few driveways remain, but nature is reclaiming the Oakwood Beach neighborhood. Canada Geese are making themselves at home.

To some this return to nature is beautiful, and in time I’ll agree, but for now my feelings are mixed. Hurricane Sandy made landfall in October 2012, but it wasn’t until June of last year that I worked up the courage to see it for myself. Aside from that first Earth Day clean-up project, a friend in Girl Scouts had cousins who lived in Oakwood Beach. We used to visit occasionally on our bicycles and we had pretty much cornered the market on Girl Scout cookie sales.

Continue reading

The Last Beach Boys Cover Band, circa A.D. 2030

Recently I’ve been bitching about the hot weather, which admittedly is selfish, as New York City hasn’t had anything close to what the western and central United States have been experiencing. But I’ve always preferred cool to hot, so even our recent heat wave has left me feeling like wilted lettuce.

By the way, there is no official definition for a “heat wave” among meteorologists, but in the northeastern U.S. it is generally agreed that three consecutive days with high temperature of 90°F or above is a heat wave. In Phoenix they call that “May.”

Anyway, I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago when I noticed that the background music was a song by the Beach Boys, one of their classic odes to young love and Summer days at the beach. As I browsed the shelves my thoughts turned to some of the dire predictions I’ve read about global warming: increasing temperatures making Summer heat deadly and rising sea levels causing coastal flooding. The future doesn’t look good for beaches. It doesn’t look good for Summer, either. Meanwhile, California burns.

Continue reading