Spaced out

Houston, we have a problem separating NASA reality from science fiction. It's time to grow up and ground the astronauts.

Published October 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

as the plutonium-laden Cassini space probe prepares to hurtle beyond our atmosphere, we might do well to bring our gaze back down from the heavens and ponder June Lockhart.

Thirty years ago, she played the planet-hopping mom on the popular kiddy sci-fi show "Lost in Space." In recent times, she has been known to drop into Houston's Mission Control and chat on the radio with the shuttle astronauts as they orbit Earth. It seems a nice thing for NASA to do, granting the fanciful wish of an aging actress. Except, no, it is June Lockhart who indulges the fantasies of a grateful NASA. As she bizarrely revealed to me, "Nearly everyone I meet there -- whether it's a physicist, an engineer, an astronaut or the guy who zips up the space suits -- they all say watching "Lost in Space" made them know what they wanted to do when they grew up."

See, there's the problem in a capsule. Even in this long season of Mir muddling, not just NASA but too many Americans are unwilling to draw a clean line between the extravagant joys of sci-fi and the downright dull reality of human life as lived in space. Until we do, we as a nation won't be able to enter a vital and long overdue discussion about our priorities in space. Namely, whether we really should spend more fortunes to keep propelling people up into a black vacuum.

Stripping away illusion won't be easy, given that the movie and rocket industries share a huckster's soul joined from their very beginnings. When, in the 1920s, German director Fritz Lang conceived a film called "Girl in the Moon," he hyped it by hiring scientists to make a real, working space rocket. The film launched before the real rocket was barely begun, but a teenage space nerd named Wernher von Braun was thrilled to be allowed to tinker with the leftover parts. Master of the pitch, von Braun went on to build rocket weapons for Hitler and then head up America's own space program, all along invoking Darwinian destiny, God's will, whatever story worked best to sell his claim that man must get to Mars and beyond.

Granted, for a brief moment in the 1960s, the accelerating gains of NASA made almost any space saga seem plausible. My own family not only bought the feverish dream, we lived it, especially when my engineer father was assigned by Lockheed to work on RIFT, a short-lived nuclear-powered rocket to the moon. At his send-off party, nobody let worry about a possible radiation catastrophe intrude on the swinging mix of martinis and Herb Alpert tunes. Hey, if astronaut Alan Shepard was already golfing on the lunar surface, why doubt Stanley Kubrick's vision of the far-off year 2001, with Pan Am shuttling vacationers to the moon?

Of course, ever since the Apollo stunt was achieved, the trajectories of NASA and Hollywood have diverged by light years. The exploding Challenger killed a school teacher; the Strategic Defense Initiative proved a fraud; the ho-hum shuttle missions of the '90s have tried to catch a satellite on a stick or let one out on a balky tether. And now the claustrophobic Mir seems a microcosm of all the petty irritants of life on Earth. Except that up there, the inevitable parking lot fender bender or appliance on the fritz can be lethal.

Meanwhile, thanks to ever-improving special effects technology, TVs and cineplexes teem with exotic life in other galaxies. Hollywood keeps using outer space as Fritz Lang intended: as a vast screen onto which we may project our limitless imaginations, writing and rewriting our scripts, personal and national, any way we like. Take a recent episode of "Star Trek Voyager" in which a Korean-American officer named Mr. Kim gets the hots for a busty newcomer recently disconnected from a hive of machinelike aliens called The Borg. Mr. Kim's lust grows by the light of the star ship's pulsating warp core, but when the Barbie-shaped Borg asks, in metallic monotone, whether he wants to "copulate," the flustered Kim has to make up his mind. Just like that, we're invited to imagine not just interracial but interspecies sex. Or sex unentangled by feelings. Or sex with a machine. Or (perhaps most far-fetched), inconsequential sex between military crew members.

Sadly, a NASA consultant has let slip what sex in gravity-free space would really be like. In a book called "Pioneering Space," Alcestis Oberg writes that "interplanetary lovers have to keep very, very, still or crash themselves through the nearest exit." Even belted down, their slightest thrusts would ruin precious experiments by jiggling instruments. Weightlessness draws the body into an unhandy fetal "slouch," and as for bodily fluids, well, sweat "sticks in globules to the skin and makes one feel exceedingly tacky and slippery." All this grimly dovetails with what else is known about how badly space travel treats the human body. Nausea and vomiting come with the territory, as would deadly doses of radiation on the way to Mars. And the longer you stay up, the more your muscles atrophy, your bones deplete. The Mir crew had to exercise for a week to ready themselves for a day's brief fix-it mission. As the Russians of Soyuz proved, nine months of weightlessness renders you virtually crippled.

My point is that NASA's outer space is the direct opposite of Hollywood's. On "Star Trek," space is a playground for experimenting with notions of self, free from laws of physics and culture. On Mir or any other cramped craft we're likely to send aloft, space is a hostile freeze demanding strict adherence to procedure, a swarm of bureaucrats monitoring the trapped pilots' every move.

So why the continued, willed blurring of these two antithetical "spaces"? Why, for example, is the voice of "Star Trek's" Captain Picard chosen to narrate a pro-NASA propaganda film, aired on PBS, that makes a U.S. mission to Mars sound inevitable? Follow, as usual, the money. Specifically the $17 billion already spent on a space station that so far is only paper, the $77 billion more the project will ring up within seven years, by General Accounting Office estimates, all of this often justified as mere prep work for a who-knows-how-expensive manned mission to Mars.

"The 'Star Trek' lobby" is how Robert Park refers to the powerful interests pressing for this money. By which Park means, basically, the aerospace industry. Park, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a physicist at the University of Maryland, was invited last week to address NASA's Langley operation on the 40th anniversary of Sputnik. He took that opportunity to reality check the "Star Trek" lobby:

"Everything we have learned in the past four decades has said we are going down the wrong road. Humans are not going to Mars. Even if we could survive the trip, which is doubtful, the astronaut in a suit has no sense of touch, nothing to hear. Only sight. And we have better eyes on Mars now, thanks to Pathfinder's robot. If we do explore the solar system it will be virtual, by probes and robots."

Park says that every NASA scientist he talks to agrees with him -- but usually very privately. That leaves the space station and its fleet of attendant shuttles orbiting in search of a purpose. Science? The National Science Foundation is expected to fund astronomy and every other avenue of scientific inquiry with half the space station budget. Yet the position of the American Physical Society is this: The space station cannot be justified on the basis of science.

Russian relations, then? Hard to see how a floating symbol of cooperation in space will deter anyone bent on selling nuclear secrets to bad guys on Earth. No, the primary purpose of the shuttle and space station is to train more astronauts, says Park, and that fills him with dread.

"The danger is that we are going to spend as if we're sending people to Mars and beyond, even though we will never do it. By the time that becomes clear, we won't have the budget for probes and robots and satellites perfect for the job. The greatest single obstacle to space exploration is human beings."

What if we did follow Park's common-sense advice, putting to rest futile dreams of landing our bodies on distant planets, choosing "virtual" space exploration instead? We would get our full fix of images from out there, enough to satisfy astronomers and Hollywood F/X artists alike. The billions left over could, perhaps, be devoted to some other American Dream Project equally symbolic of a national consensus. This would present a perfect opportunity to finally begin to shake off the Cold War hangover and democratize the setting of science goals in America. As is done now in countries like Britain, Denmark and Holland, lay persons might cross-examine experts, deliberate among themselves and then report their findings on science and technology policies at national press conferences. If, after a thorough, rational assessment of the costs and risks of plutonium-powered electrical generators in space, the citizenry votes to spend the whole pile sending swarms of Cassini's cousins into the heavens, so be it. More likely, Park's "virtual" space explorers would remain the modest budget item they are today, and the savings would flow to health research or renewable energy or some other quest of direct, tangible benefit to the average person.

Either way, America would have grown out of its long, spaced-out adolescence. To keep our wildest space fantasies while grounding our astronauts -- there is my vision of the final frontier.

By David Beers

Former Californian David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee ( an online daily magazine of news and views based in British Columbia.

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