(Hey, Charlie, thanks for giving us the chance to join the discussion, and have a great trip. Now, what've I been thinking about lately? The events of the past week reminded me of a little incident...)
A couple of years ago I sat down to lunch with a prominent astronaut, a Shuttle commander and space station veteran. We talked about space development and alternative paths to what NASA has actually done since 1970. I told him that what I'd been waiting for ever since Skylab was a variable-gravity research station, because it hadn't taken us long to accumulate lots of evidence that lack of gravity is bad for the human body, and because lower gravity was the only physiological variable for the Moon, Mars and other possible destinations that we couldn't currently test for. It's also one of the most important; a variable-gravity station could tell us whether unaltered humans could live long-term on Mars, for instance. The astronaut asked me how I would be build this station, and I said, "Rotate two booster modules, one habitable, linked by tethers." Much like Skylab, and very simple to construct.
He shook his head. "Tethers in space," he said, "break."
I blinked at him. "Well, if they break, you build 'em stronger, make 'em out of something else, or you use a number of them." I didn't quite say, "This isn't rocket science," but really, it's basic engineering.
He shook his head even more vehemently. "Tethers in space," he snapped past gritted teeth, "break."
I had no reply. I had been watching him; he became visibly tense every time the conversation moved away from strict NASA doctrine. This made me realize something:
Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go--and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA's Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. --That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.
All of which is why I'm heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I'm not going to miss you.
As to the astronaut, fortune continues to smile on him. He's got a future mission to the ISS. I suppose that's better than nothing. But I feel sad for him because, believing what he believes, will he ever really see where it is he's gotten to? If even he has abandoned the dreams Apollo made possible, then what, now, can we dream about?