Citizens in Space? What A Dream!

Note: this article was originally published in the 26 October 2000 issue of USA Today and is reproduced on SpaceRef with the permission of the author.

As the first permanent crew to the International Space Station (ISS) prepares for its launch Tuesday, I can't help thinking about how far behind we are. In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, we were supposed to have an enormous elegant space station by now, with regular Pan Am shuttle service to it, for ordinary citizens and colorless bureaucrats alike. Americans and Russians were supposed to have bases on the moon, and a huge American spacecraft was to be preparing for manned Mars and deep-space exploration.

The kick is that Arthur Clarke's science-fiction vision of 2001 wasn't so far-fetched in 1968. Back then, we were on the brink of landing humans on the moon. NASA was drawing up the final design of our first large space station, Skylab, along with preliminary designs for a shuttle transportation system. A successful series of unmanned probes had mapped the moon, and another family of robotic spacecraft was preparing for intense and highly successful exploration of Mars and the rest of the solar system.

The logical, evolutionary extension of these 1960s activities was a supremely sophisticated space program. Indeed, America's own expectations for the year 2001, like Clarke's, were shaped not so much by science fiction, but science facts, the breathtaking real-life accomplishments of those times.

However, when NASA now trumpets the ISS as a "new era" of cooperation from which great science and great discoveries will come, they're on much thinner factual ice than they were promising these things in the '60s.

The space station's equipment is so balky that for the first few years, 50%-80% of crew time will be spent fixing and maintaining it, not investigating the profound questions of existence in the universe. Furthermore, how cooperative this new era of cooperation is depends largely on our new allies, the money-challenged Russians, whose only consistency has been their unwillingness to pick up their fair share of ISS costs.

The U.S. shuttles are old; one already has blown up. Planetary exploration has come to a screeching halt because NASA's still-fashionable "faster, better, cheaper" dogma resulted in four piles of rubble on Mars' surface, just last year.

But NASA has one thing still going for it: the dazzling illogic of space developments.

The whole space program came about not as some logical, evolutionary outgrowth of technology, but as a result of international hyperventilation over questions of nuclear war - and a young president, John F. Kennedy, who thought landing on the moon somehow was going to settle all that. Once accomplished, President Nixon didn't logically use the magnificent interplanetary infrastructure of the Apollo program; he promptly scuttled it and sold the metal for scrap. In keeping with the illogical waste of expensive space resources, President Carter later chucked Skylab. After the Challenger disaster during the Reagan years, NASA clearly never was going to use the shuttle as a broad-access spaceliner that citizen-passengers could use to go to the New Frontier, as promised. And all hopes of humans playing golf on Mars in our lifetimes fell victim to the failures last year in Clinton's "re-invented" NASA.

Fortunately, space just has zigzagged accidentally into the delightfully unpredictable, opening for us citizens: the "It's Our Turn Era." Fittingly enough, the "It's Our Turn Era" will begin in 2001.

If Russian officials allow Mir to remain aloft next year, Dennis Tito, a very wealthy American, will be launched with two cosmonauts on a Russian rocket to the old space station, where he will spend seven to 10 days just plain enjoying himself. Tito once worked as a space navigation expert at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but left and made a fortune in telecommunications. He decided to blow about $20 million of his own money and buy the first tourist ticket into space - from some newly capitalistic Russians.

Other "rich guys" are rumored to be lining up at Russia's space-ticket window, too. The best will come when ordinary people - like you and me - get a chance to audition for NBC's Destination Mir program the brainchild of the producers of the wildly popular Survivor series.

After a selection/competition/training series of programs, the first not-rich "common" U.S. citizen actually will fly in space - a ticket bought not for democracy, not for science, not for the international brotherhood of nations but for the one traditional value of television: astronomical ratings. The other networks probably will set off their own mini-space race, jostling to get their own versions of Destination Mir into space and on the air, too.

That's if the Russians don't do something stupefyingly illogical and de-orbit Mir next year, as a senior Cabinet official in Moscow this week claimed they would. There's a whole world of folks out here, comrade, who want to go into space by whatever means possible -- TV programs, lotteries, adventure-vacation packages, whatever. Can any sensible Russian find it in his soul to kill the goose that has finally -after all of these patient, miserable, long-suffering years - laid a golden egg?

If the Russians do de-orbit Mir, they are looking into the option of selling seats to ISS. What's great science compared to a contract with NBC? Better still, some enterprising Russian genius might kiss off any dependence on the ISS and outfit the brand new Mir hull -- already built and currently sitting unused on a factory floor in Moscow -- as a comfortable space hotel for only about $300 million. For an additional revenue stream, it could be converted into a movie sound stage. Where are those shrewd Russian oligarchs when you need them?

When a radio commentator recently asked me whether I was excited about NASA's "historic" new era of the ISS, I had to say I wasn't: "I don't think changing a battery on a space station or putting a patch on flawed computer software is the stuff which dreams are made of."

But sending some common citizen into space - and then more citizens and more - well, that's the stuff of which all our dreams have been made for a long time. We've been dreaming about it since we saw the opening scene of 2001: a shuttle's rendezvous with a rotating double-wheel-shaped space station to the graceful music of a Strauss waltz. It was ballet. It was poetry. It was a journey we'd all like to take - thought we could take.

Maybe. Someday. Soon.

Alcestis "Cooky" Oberg, a freelance science and technology writer in Houston, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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