Citizens in Space? What A Dream!

By SpaceRef Editor
October 29, 2000
Filed under ,

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

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 ‚Äî 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.

SpaceRef staff editor.