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.

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.

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Space, Snails & Quanta: Getting My Geek on at the World Science Festival

I spent theWorld Science Festival 2015 last week of May doing something very cool: volunteering at the World Science Festival. And by “cool” I mean getting up close and personal with squid guts.

First up was a lecture by Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist. Did you know that the Chief Scientist at NASA is a woman? Neither did I. In one way I think that’s terrific; in another way I hope we’re getting past the “oh my gosh it’s a woman” phase and can just focus on her long fascination with space and science.

We have something in common, Dr. Stofan and me: we inherited our interest in science from our parents. In Stofan’s case it was her father, who worked for NASA during its early days; in my case it was my Mom, who was fascinated by the space program and watched every liftoff and splashdown on TV. To me it was as natural as watching a favorite TV series or sports team.

Poster for Dr. Ellen Stofan's talk at #WSF15
Poster for Dr. Ellen Stofan’s talk at #WSF15

In third grade our teacher thought it would be a good idea to watch an early (pre-moon landing) Apollo liftoff during class time. When a boy in my class expressed amazement at watching a liftoff for the first time, I replied, “But they’re on all the time!” In my house, they were; not everyone had the same experience.

So, really, it’s because of Mom that I was sitting in a cafe at the New School, watching the live stream of Dr. Stofan’s talk from the packed auditorium nearby. The audience was an invited group of high school and middle school students from around New York City whom we’d checked in as they arrived. (I particularly remember a Summer program called “Mathematical Problem Solving”–because that’s so much better than solving problems with guess-work and wishful thinking?)

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