Space place

I took a quick trip to Florida last week to see the Space Shuttle launch. I used to have an astronaut for a boss; he was supposed to go up on Thursday and had invited everyone who had worked on this particular team to attend as “VIP” guests.

As it turned out, NASA discovered fuel-sensor problems when they filled the tank on Wednesday night and scrubbed the launch; now the mission won’t go up until January 2 at the earliest.

So it was a disappointing trip for me, completely lacking in the pyrotechnic thrill that had motivated me to buy my JetBlue ticket to Orlando. But at least I can salvage a blog post from the mess. Following, a few notes:

The weather. Locals said it was cold for December at 70 degrees and the weakest of breezes. I said, “It’s 30 degrees in New York — I’m going to the beach.” And there was almost no one there, since it was so cold.


Bugs. There are bugs in Florida year-round. By bugs I mean mosquitos. I got bites on three of five fingers of my left hand; also on my right forearm. Well-defined seasons can be a blessing.

The lay of the land. Florida is exceedingly flat, and the area between Orlando and the Atlantic coast is sparsely settled, mostly just a giant exurb with some swampland and citrus groves for variety. Mostly, from a car, it looks like this:


And that’s another thing — I guess I don’t leave New York often enough, but it really freaks me out that in most of the country you pretty much absolutely need a car to get anywhere at all. The thought of being dependent on a single, fallible machine to get around made me feel claustrophobic.

People. My brother lives not too far from the Kennedy Space Center, so I stayed with him. We had a nice Thai dinner one evening and watched cable TV together. It made the trip worthwhile.

I also got together with a bunch of former co-workers from that project with the astronaut boss. I was really happy to see many of them, but it felt like I shouldn’t have had to pay money to travel to see them — why aren’t they all just at the office, like they used to be every day? Seeing these people, as lovely as they are, might not have been worth the trip.

Space, the final frontier. A little-known but not altogether surprising fact about me: I was a charter subscriber, around the age of twelve, to Air & Space Smithsonian magazine. It’s an upper-middlebrow Popular Science — visions of a better, faster, higher future, some of them in operation today!, all tantalizingly near. I liked the aviation stories well enough (and for several years had a fascination with ultralight airplanes and autogyros), but of course the real excitement was in space: launch systems, satellites, interplanetary probes, space stations. Space-related projects not only produced the coolest hardware but also seemed most about “exploring the unknown,” as the phrase goes — and thus were the most important thing going, the area of endeavor that could most change how we understood ourselves and human beings.

While I’m still as much a nerd as I was at age twelve, the modes of my nerdery (nerddom? nerdity? nerdicity? nerdure?) have changed. For example, instead of daydreaming about space elevators (a quintessential Air & Space obsession), I write blog posts using TextMate.

I’m also nerd enough not to buy the rah-rah enthusiasm for NASA that every American kid is raised with. In particular, the entire enterprise of sending people into space looks pretty dubious to me. I’m all for exploration and research — we’ve learned all kinds of important things by sending stuff up into space, about the workings of the cosmos and the fragility of our own planet. But we sent men to the Moon mostly to beat the Russians. We now maintain a space station and an aging, dangerous, and outrageously expensive fleet of space shuttles mostly out of national pride.

I witnessed an illuminating exchange between a few of my former colleagues, all very committed psychologically to human space flight, and a public relations guy for the major contractor that runs Shuttle operations. The background: A few years ago, in the wake of the Columbia disaster, George W. Bush announced a “Vision for Space Exploration” that to all but the faithful was an obvious boondoggle and pipe dream: humans back to the Moon, then to Mars, with money taken from other NASA programs (the ones that produce valuable science, in fact). Part of this plan is to phase out the Space Shuttle by 2010 and replace it a few years later with a new “Crew Launch Vehicle” that’s cheaper and simpler, more like the Apollo modules that sat on top of big rockets.

So this guy we’re talking to is working for a huge program that’s supposed to end within three years, and nobody around the table but me is happy about it ending (and I keep my mouth shut in these situations). What was interesting was the reasons people gave for wanting the Shuttle to continue flying: so many people had put so much work into it, they said. Morale was getting low among NASA employees and contractors in the Shuttle program.

The PR guy said he suspected the program would be extended beyond 2010 — enough constituencies were behind it, including members of Congress whose districts included companies that work on the Shuttle. He specifically mentioned “national pride” as a reason the U.S. wouldn’t want to use Russian rockets to take astronauts up to the International Space Station.

The conversation turned to human space flight in general. Someone asked how NASA could get the public excited about sending people into space again. (The constant frustration of the true believe is that others don’t see the importance of the cause.) The justification was self-evident enough to be condensed into a few well-worn words and phrases: the future, exploration, the triumph of the human spirit, that kind of thing.

It occurred to me that the titans of the military-industrial complex have made NASA into their greatest success story. Billions flow to aerospace contractors in the name of something magical — a totem or fetish that we invest with our purest dreams, like those Chinese flying lanterns that carry New Year’s wishes to heaven. This is not a process that yields to rational budget analysis.

Launch pad
That’s me on the (boondoggle of a ) Shuttle launch pad a few years ago. I’m actually working in this photo. The pants are puffy because there was a strong breeze, and because I bought ill-fitting pants on sale at Banana Republic.

28 responses to “Space place”

  1. Scotty says:

    It occurred to me that the titans of the military-industrial complex have made NASA into their greatest success story. Billions flow to aerospace contractors in the name of something magical — a totem or fetish that we invest with our purest dreams, like those Chinese flying lanterns that carry New Year’s wishes to heaven. This is not a process that yields to rational budget analysis.

    This is an incredibly astute observation (not that I should be surprised by that noodle of yours, Davy).

    I would venture to add that where this is the MICs greatest victory, convincing us that keeping a few thousand nuclear warheads around as totally normal is a close second. (And don’t even get me started all the money that’s wasted on useless hardware, which just breeds un-winnable asymmetrical wars.)

    Where do you sit on the idea of the govt. being the largest benefactor of basic research in the US, with the idea that most of what is discovered will go into duel-use technologies?

  2. Bryan says:

    dave — you were simply wearing the standard DC work uniform. but oy! those khakis. the government may be snowing us and selling out our security, but at least you can say they no longer have you dressing like a schmuck to go to work. your new surroundings must be so much sexier by comparison! your current wardrobe certainly is.

  3. Dave says:

    Well, basic research is a fine thing, both for practical reasons (it can lead to useful technologies and cures, etc.) and less tangible ones (I do think there’s value in finding out more about the universe we live in, and it’s worth spending some small percentage of our GDP to pursue these questions). And there’s a lot of basic research that isn’t going to be sponsored by industry because it doesn’t have an immediate payoff. So sure, the government should be doing it.

    Much research takes place under military auspices, and I think that can’t help but distort research priorities. When I was in high school a couple of friends of mine got internships at the national laboratory in town working on Star Wars-related stuff — lasers to shoot down Russian missiles. There was a ton of money flowing into the program, so all the physicists researched killer lasers, which of course couldn’t have shot down any Russian missiles in real life.

  4. Dave says:

    Oh, I know, Bryan. I still have a closet full of work clothes from DC that I wouldn’t be caught dead in anymore — and I was considered a snappy dresser at work down there.

  5. Bryan says:

    I like the colors in the shirt.

  6. Scotty says:

    I like how you added some flair with the red shoelaces. Did any of your superiors ever comment on those?

  7. Dave says:

    Orange shoelaces. I still get comments on those.

  8. Bryan says:

    Dave always has had great taste in shoes, NASA or no.

  9. Bryan says:

    the song hatch is currently playing is thematically appropriate to this post.

  10. Scotty says:

    Wow, a triumph of the shoelace industrial complex! How many years have they lasted?

  11. Dave says:

    Five years of heavy use, maybe? Although they’re falling apart now. I tend to wear shoes forever. The pair I have on right now are some Adidas I bought about six years ago, the colors all faded. I should go shoe shopping.

  12. Rachel says:

    Orange, orange, orange as a tangerine!

    Please describe Dave’s sexy new wardrobe in more detail.

  13. Dave says:

    You haven’t heard about my new gig as a go-go dancer?

  14. Scotty says:

    Oh m’god, Dave, you totally wrote this whole post just so you can talk about how hot you are. You do this every week!

  15. Dave says:

    This blog was founded on the principle of “If you got it, flaunt it.”

  16. Bryan says:

    are we to understand all this talk about “spacecraft” and “rockets” as rather flimsy euphemisms, then? what are we to make of the fact that you went all the way to some seedy motel in florida and couldn’t get your shuttle to launch?

  17. Dave says:

    I’m so ashamed.

  18. Literacy says:

    Hmm. But the shuttle launched okay back when you wore those khaki pants? Maybe your hip new clothes are the problem.

  19. Tim Wager says:

    “The pants are puffy because there was a strong breeze.”

    I wasn’t going to mention it, but now that we’re on the topics of Dave’s wardrobe and his masculinity, are you sure that wasn’t a rocket in your pocket?

  20. Dave says:

    And so the boys’ talk of rocket shipscocks drove nearly all the women away from the blog.

  21. Lisa says:

    Could this have been the problem with the (actual, not metaphorical) shuttle?

  22. Scotty says:

    All this talk of Dave’s drawers has gotten me feeling like this.

  23. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    re# 22
    scott you need help.

  24. Bryan says:

    i really apologize for turning something with potential for real intellectual discussion into an unfogged thread — sans the other 343 comments.

  25. Scotty says:

    # 23: All I need is a bowl of milk and a strawberry. Is that so wrong?

  26. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    well, when you put it that way….i seem like the perv.

  27. Swells says:

    That photo makes me want to drive from Houston to Florida wearing a diaper.

  28. autumn says:

    #27 comment is the best ever. I’m laughing out loud over here.