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.

We Said “No” (for Vikki)

It was the last day of classes that semester, only finals remaining, and for us that was a light load. Vikki was a fashion design major, so her grades would mostly be determined by sketches and garments created during the semester. As an English major, most of my grades would be based on term papers (we still typed on paper back then), and if I hadn’t done the reading assignments necessary to pass the finals, it was too late to cram.

So we celebrated by going into town for dinner. Nothing fancy, just some pasta and enough wine to make us happy and talkative.

As our tongues loosened, Vikki grew serious for a moment and said, “Somebody asked me to join the Nazi party.”

I gulped my wine.

“She asked…” “I was so shocked…” “Me too!” “I couldn’t believe…” “…thought it was a joke.” “…didn’t know what to say.”

Our words tumbled together. If you’d been sitting at the next table you might have overheard and thought we were discussing some hot gossip, but it was more serious than gossip.

Finally, in unison: “My father was in World War II!”

We took deep breaths, laughed with nervous relief, calmed down, and compared stories. Both were the same, more or less: the same woman had approached each of us when we were alone, spoke disparagingly of other races, and invited us to join the Nazi party. Apparently her family were members.

Vikki and I both responded the same way, too. Shock, disbelief, then stammering out “N-no.”

Don’t we all like to think that if we were some day faced with an important ethical choice we would respond with eloquence? Well, Vikki and I did not. We were taken by surprise and barely able to speak. We were horrified. But we said the one word that mattered most: No!

Our fathers had both served in World War II, both in the Navy, though neither did any fighting. Vikki’s Dad served on an aircraft carrier. My Dad, slightly younger, enlisted after high school when he was still 17. By a fluke of timing, he boarded a troop train out of New York’s old Penn Station on V-E Day, and spent his time in the Philippines. But, yes, both had joined the United States military intending to fight against Nazism.

Four decades later, their daughters were asked to become Nazis.

I have thought about that dinner conversation many times in the years since we graduated, but most of all since last year’s election, when white supremacists and the “alt-right” have revived both the Confederate battle flag and the swastika as symbols. Now, when all our choices seem to matter a little more, I want to hold on to that time when Vikki and I said “no” to bigotry and hate.

How many people recently have faced the question that so shocked Vikki and me? How many have stammered out a bewildered “N-no”?

Alas, I cannot ask Vikki how she feels. We had a falling out a couple of years after graduation and lost touch. From time to time I’ve tried Googling her, but it seems she didn’t use social media or have a website in her name. Her name, in fact, was a problem: Victoria is her middle name, and in the five semesters we were in college together she went by Vicky, Vicki and Vikki. (I’ve chosen to use the spelling she used when last we were in touch.)

In early 2016 I tried Googling again, using her full first, middle and last names. What I found was an obituary. She died late in 2015, much too young. I’m sorry we don’t have an opportunity to find each other again. She would have been outraged by the events of 2016 and early 2017 and we would have remembered that conversation of long ago.

This post, then, is my memorial to Vikki, on what would have been her birthday. Our friendship had its ups and downs, but I know that when we faced the most important moral decision of our college years, we both said “no.” And for that I will always respect her.

The Buddy System for Job Seekers

When I was in Girl Scouts many years ago, we practiced what we called the “Buddy System.” It was simple: you never went anywhere away from the main group without a buddy. Whether it was a regular meeting, a day trip, or a weekend at camp, you took a buddy along for safety.

Now comes evidence the same thing works for job seekers. If you want to get a job, it helps to have a job—but if you don’t, you definitely need to have friends who are employed.

The first evidence came from Italy, but now American researchers have reached the same conclusion. (There’s a $5 fee for that article, so I haven’t read it.) Naturally, there’s a certain advantage to having employed friends when you’re looking for a new job: they might know of a position with their own employers and recommend you. But I suspect there’s a bit more to it.

Continue reading

Did You Tell Them?

CC Some rights reserved by Purple Phoenix

This story goes back to a non-profit job I had several years ago. Early on in my time there I’d been given the responsibility of maintaining a contact list for our department. As we had unusually high staff turnover, including transfers in and out of the department, it took up a fair amount of time. When we relocated to a different building, it made sense to expand the contact list to include all of our organization’s staff in that building, not just our department. Then someone got the idea that the contact list should include all our staff, not just those in the building.

In the meantime I’d formed a virtual friendship via e-mail and phone with the technicians in the IT department, who were mostly at one of the other locations. I’d only met two of them: the technician assigned to our site and the guy who managed all our cell phones. But the IT guys were a great team and very helpful even though we hadn’t yet met. One of the things they helped me with was the contact list, even to the point of creating an automatic notification system that would let me know when a new e-mail address or cell phone number had been assigned to someone on the staff.

Continue reading