Confessions of a NASA Groupie

I feel like if I had seen this video when I was a kid, my life would be different. This one is also excellent, and supposedly as close as you can get, audio-wise, to a space shuttle taking off—people describe it as being so loud it’s like the air can’t hold the sound. So far I haven’t been lucky enough to see a rocket launch, so I can’t confirm these accounts for myself.

As a kid my life was dominated by space, but it was the Star Wars Star Trek kind of space, where people didn’t have to deal with real physics or budget cuts. Engineers and astronauts and space enthusiasts often describe science fiction as their main inspiration, but I also suspect the head-in-the-clouds realm of science fantasy can turn people like myself off from dealing with the real problems of actual space travel, that we are, essentially, so helpless in the “cosmic ocean” that we can’t even swim, much less build a boat, and instead wade out into the water until it reaches our necks, at which point we turn around and come back, when we should be constructing caravels to explore new worlds.

The nitty-gritty shuttle program, which was several years old by the time I was born, held virtually no interest for me. Those space trucks were routine, boring, even kind of ugly, while for astronauts like Mike Mullane riding a rocket (rather than the USS Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon) was a pursuit which began before he hit puberty. His memoir, by the way, is just as funny, entertaining, and informative as that brief lecture (how can it only have 300 views?), and was recommended by Mary Roach, whose book on space is also excellent.

Now, of course, that the (flawed, dangerous, but still incredibly cool) shuttle is gone, we miss it desperately, and have been forced to rely on Russian transports to get astronauts to the space station, the most expensive object ever constructed, worth at least twenty Great Pyramids of Giza, where an astronaut recently dressed up like Captain Janeway to celebrate the delivery of an espresso machine.

Six years ago around the time I was finishing college I came up with an idea for a new scifi novel which would involve, amazingly, actual science. I’ve been working on the idea intermittently since then, and only got really serious with research about a year ago, to the extent that I am now a fully-fledged space enthusiast, a NASA groupie who also has plenty of love for the Russian and even the Chinese space program, a guy full of anecdotes and weird factoids about space with few people in Korea—land of extreme practicality, where ambition rarely extends beyond becoming a doctor, lawyer, or housewife—to tell them to.

I found out about Buran, the Russian shuttle program which had one flawless unmanned flight before it was shut down (is this picture of the space shuttle’s evil twin not the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?). I learned that, rather than dying instantly, you can actually expect to survive at least fifteen seconds if you get blasted into the vacuum of space, as three cosmonauts did, rather horrifyingly, when their ship decompressed in 1971. I found out that Elon Musk plans to have thousands of rockets carrying millions of people to Mars by the 2030s, that space has a distinct smell, that astronauts regularly see cosmic rays flashing through their eyes, that there was once a plan to use nuclear pogo sticks to get enormous spaceships into orbit, and that using centrifugal force to simulate gravity as in 2001’s famous space station apparently won’t work because of the Coriolis Effect.

A lot of this stuff is basic to space enthusiasts, I’m sure. Thanks to the obsessive research of Stephen Baxter, a former engineer, I’ve learned some crazier things. To initiate a shuttle’s deorbit program, for example, you should press the buttons OPS 31 PRO—located on the keyboard to the right of the left-hand commander’s seat in the shuttle’s cockpit. NASA had a nuclear rocket program called NERVA going for awhile, and could have used Apollo technology to put people on Mars decades ago—you need a bigger rocket to escape Earth’s gravity well, a bigger habitat to support the astronauts on their year-long journey, and a bigger lander to deal with Mars’ atmosphere and gravity, but it’s all doable with existing technology if you have the will to do it, which we don’t, except for Elon Musk, who was called a time-traveler from the 1950s or 60s by a commenter on reddit—someone with the can-do enthusiasm of the golden age of space travel. Shuttle technology, also rather amazingly, can get you much further—it could even put people on Titan to search for life, as long as you don’t care about bringing them back again.

His novels are pretty weak on characterization and description of anything except the realm of space and engineering, and he goes really, really, really deep into NASA politics and rocket construction, probably too deep, to be honest, but to paraphrase a reviewer on amazon, if you want to travel to Titan without actually traveling to Titan, Stephen Baxter is the man to take you there.

As for the future, the only person I believe in is Elon Musk. I’m afraid NASA’s current Orion program, which should have been built instead of the space shuttle, will be cancelled or scaled back to obsolescence by the next president, who will be, I’m calling it now, Bernie Sanders. My basic opinion is that a habitat should be constructed on the far side of the moon to study the effects of being so separated from the Earth that you can’t even see it, and also to prove that people are capable of inhabiting distant astral bodies. Floating cities in the skies of Venus, cities whose purpose is to terraform Mars, and at least robotic exploration of Europa, Titan, and Enceladus (all likely to possess microbial life) should commence. Research into the remarkable Emdrive needs to accelerate, though I’m afraid none of this stuff is going to happen without the necessary political will, which is sadly absent since we left the Russians in the dust decades ago (and I will be surprised and impressed if the Chinese ever build their space station).

Anyway, I’m a NASA groupie, I love space, and one day I’m going to make a pilgrimage to Houston, and bow down before that Mecca of rocketry, but for now, all I can do is write about it.