Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Earthbound? Maybe not.

When I was a 10 or 11, lo those many decades ago, one of my favorite books was an obscure Arthur C. Clarke novel from 1954 called Islands in the Sky (don't bother looking on's out of print and has been for ages though you can still find it for a dollar or two on the most excellent used book site, In it, a young man wins a trip to the "Inner Space Station" whereupon he experiences life in space, a bit of adventure, some danger, and of course comes home safely.

What made Islands so compelling for me though was not that it was space ships zooming around with cool creatures (it wasn't) but that it seemed so real, so plausible, in that classic Arthur C. Clarke way with the exception, of course, of the conversations about "Mercurians" and friendly Martians.

I absolutely loved the idea that a teenage boy could head off to space for a week or two, that people were living and working and exploring out there, and that there was adventure to be had. Who wouldn't want that experience? Is there anyone out there who, as a little kid in the Space Age, didn't play astronaut or space man (or woman) at least once?

I was too young to remember the moon landing -- it happened three months after I was born -- so my exposure to the idea of space travel came from the TV (Star Trek and Space: 1999) and books like "Islands in the Sky" and fluff like Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. In the 33 years since Star Wars was released, I've lost count of the number of times I've watched's got to be more than 50.

Then, in real life, there was the shuttle program. I devoured the National Geographic issues that covered the test flights of the Enterprise and then the first flights of Columbia and Challenger. I remember where I was when the Challenger tragically exploded (driving through downtown Providence on my way home after finishing my one mid-term exam of the day).

I loved the idea of space travel. I was fascinated by it. I still am. I can't imagine what it must have been like to experience the frenzy and global excitement of the space race, the Mercury astronauts, the moon landings. If Apollo 13, The Dish, or The Right Stuff are on TV, my afternoon or evening are shot as I compulsively sit down to finish watching them.

While space travel in recent decades has been limited to shuttle flights a few hundred miles above the earth, it is still space travel. A friend witnessed a shuttle launch in person and said it was the most impressive thing he'd ever seen. Sure, they aren't covered the way they used to be and most people might not know that a shuttle flight is underway at any given time. But still, the idea of manned space flight, exploration to the Moon, Mars, and beyond carries with it a profound sense of adventure, of purpose, of hope, the idea that we're part of a grander universe and that we have the opportunity to discover what's out there. We were still sending people into space and there were plans for something more.

Except that now there aren't, at least not the way we used to think of them. I understand the financial issues but I admit to feeling initially a deep sense of disappointment when I heard the news that President Obama's proposed budget would essentially bring to a close the era of NASA as an agency developing the means to send men and women into space. Instead, the agency would still train astronauts but instead find opportunities to send them to space aboard commercial rockets.

But then I read the details -- the President's budget actually increases NASA funding -- and looked at the technology and concepts being planned and I realized that the dream, the sense of adventure and purpose, are still there. How the mission is being carried out is just taking a different form:

The Obama budget proposes spending $18 billion over five years for development of technologies like fuel stations in orbit, new types of engines to accelerate spacecraft through space and robotic factories that could churn soil on the moon — and eventually Mars — into rocket fuel.

Plans for a new mission to leave Earth’s orbit will probably not be spelled out for a few years, and the budget proposal makes it clear that any future exploration program will be a multinational collaboration, more like the International Space Station than the six moon landings of the Apollo program.

As I thought about it, I came to realize that this is perhaps a more mature approach to space exploration. After all, the spaceflight in Islands in the Sky is carried out by the equivalent of commercial airlines. Private agencies are putting up satellites already so what's to stop them from working with manned launches as well.

The exploration of space would become a global effort that could unify rather competition conducted by individual countries. Hell, that's a key tenet of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future as viewed through the lens of Star Trek. Detractors have made fun of President Obama's cool demeanor by calling him Spock. Maybe they were more correct than they realized. The man can give the Vulcan Salute, after all.

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