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.