Hey, NASA, quit hoggin' space!

It's time to share the universe. Dennis Tito ranks with John Glenn. He's a pioneer, leading the way in bringing space down to earth.

Published April 28, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

American financier Dennis Tito's $20 million trip to the International Space Station has been something between a headache and a wake-up-screaming nightmare for the good people at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For a number of reasons, they have fought his precedence-busting space jaunt every step of the way.

Which only proves to me that NASA has become the worst advocate for space travel. Now, I'm no astrophysicist, Air Force test pilot or satellite communications specialist. Hell, my cellphone barely works. My problem with "space tourism" is my own bitter jealousy. Otherwise, I rank Tito with John Glenn. He's a pioneer. It's time to bring space down to earth.

Much of the criticism of Tito's flight is the danger his visit presents to the fledgling space station. He has to pay for anything he breaks (or stains, I guess); NASA is confining him solely to the Russian section of the ISS; and all experiments on the station are going on hiatus for Tito's stay. He must sleep in the Russian "Space Taxi" that's bringing him there, and he can't move around -- not even to the little billionaire's room -- without an escort.

NASA isn't alone. Every other member of the ISS committee -- except Russia, of course -- has expressed concern over the mission. The new chairman of the House Science Committee, Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., has spoken out against Tito's visit, despite the financier's strong donations to the GOP -- so much so that President Bush himself may make a call to the station when Tito arrives. But it's a bipartisan concern. Texan Ralph Hall, the ranking Democrat on the same committee, called Tito's visit a "distraction" and "misallocation" of station resources.

NASA fears the fragile new station and its scientific mission could be harmed by the presence of an untrained passenger like Tito, who might be the Homer Simpson of the elite rich. The $60 billion station is "not a pleasure cruise," a NASA spokesperson has told news agencies, and who knows what damage Tito's shufflepuck might do in the cold vacuum of space. While those fears are justified, I don't buy them for a second. What NASA really stands to suffer is a diminishing of the grandeur and self-importance of extraplanetary travel, a cheapening of space, if you will.

That's also a justified fear for an agency that's so underfunded, and subjected to so much scrutiny. But so what? When it's time to go, it's time to go, and it's time for NASA to let the rest of us go, too.

I wouldn't call Georgia O'Keeffe's "Sky Above Clouds IV" my favorite painting. But her 24-foot-wide airplane view of marshmallow-shaped clouds stretched out to the horizon is impressive -- taking up a full wall at Chicago's Art Institute. Equally impressive are the dozens of people who stand gaping underneath it.

I'm sure they, like me, have had years of flying bored, as the commonality of air transport has turned the rides into expensive nap times, movie galleries with cramped seating and bad food. To our left, we may see the Grand Tetons, but without the captain's announcement, would we look? O'Keeffe reminds us to look, and her canvas and oil instantly reminded me of the summer of my 8th year, heading to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. Not yet experienced enough to be bored, I played the greatest "What's that cloud look like?" game of my life.

That same view inspired a not quite favorite song -- Liz Phair's "Stratford-On-Guy." The song is an observation of the city from a moving plane, and of the plane from the view of one seat: "I was flying into Chicago at night, watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke ..."

The song is mechanical, more read than sung, and yet since hearing it, I don't know if I've ever flown into Chicago, or any other city for that matter, without thinking of it - or thinking like it.

Planes fly in and out of Chicago hundreds of times a day. It's safe and sound and boring. Thankfully Orville and Wilbur shared the experience with Georgia and Liz and the rest of us.

It's time for science to share space. It's past time to get the poets, the philosophers, the psychologists, the politicians, the plumbers and, darn it, me, up there. I want to see what weather looks like without a meteorologist in the way. I want to see the sky without the satellites and smog. I want to float, I want to feel both awed, inspired and afraid of my giant planet -- and awed, inspired and afraid of the lengths of human achievement. I want to come back and see if a tree on a hill looks different if in one gaze I've known the entire hemisphere it shares.

I can't be alone in wanting to know my planet like this. And that's good -- because I also really want to know my planet in ways I can't assume -- in ways that a musician or a sociologist might. I want to see how an architect is influenced by time in zero G; I want to hear how a secretary of state might speak for peace after seeing a globe without borders, a planet uncolored by the pettiness of people. I want launches and landings to become casual, and meaningless, so that a new generation of musicians and artists can reexpress it and remind me of the wonder again.

I was born three years after Neil Armstrong's moon walk. I've known no time without space travel, space shuttles, space stations. And yet, we're still earthbound. It may just take the banality of a "space tourist" to make the stars a tenable goal, not just for governments, but for everyday guys like me.

Which may be what NASA needs. Though the Bush White House has expressed renewed interest in space, the days of Cold War goals, and national pride equaling NASA pride, are gone. Good. Jingoism is an awkward way to achieve the next step of human intellectual and technological growth. But egotism? Selfish desire to touch the heavens -- or at least be close enough for a better view? I'm OK with that. And NASA should be too.

Space, or NASA for that matter, will not be cheapened by Tito's visit. Nor will it be if "Titanic" director James Cameron fulfills his dream of space travel next year, or even if the folks behind "Survivor" can resurrect their plan for "Destination Mir" now that Mir is resting on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. If every space tourist comes back and gets more people willing to take the risk for the ultimate spring break, then NASA will have a real priority -- not just understanding space and the technology necessary to be there, but helping to define humanity's role in space, and space's role in the human experience.

Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long. If you told me, at age 8, that by the time I was 28, the closest I'd get to space would be that plane heading to L.A., I wouldn't believe you.

And then I'd get back to enjoying the clouds.

By Eric F. Lipton

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