Reader Request Week 2009 #3: Space!
If you could, would you go into Space?
The short answer: Sure, as long as someone else paid for it.
The longer answer, yes, but I resent the fact that a decade into the 21st century the only way I could get into space at this point is to spend $20 million or so to strap myself onto a rocket whose basic design has not changed in 50 years, and launch myself toward an “international space station” where for three days I’ll be confined to an area not much larger than a bus, with a toilet that may or may not function. I mean, hell. If that’s how I wanted to spend three days, I could take a Greyhound from Boston to San Diego. Yes, I’d be weightless and the view would be nice, but you could tie me to a ballon and put a picture of the Earth on a big screen HDTV, and that would be 90% of the experience right there. Here in 2009, I should be able to visit a real space station, one that rotates for artificial gravity and is large enough to house more than a couple of Russian cosmonauts sullenly babysitting whatever middle-aged American millionaire has paid to go into space this time. It sucks that I can’t.
This goes back to a question I see peppered in the request thread, which is: What the hell happened to going into space? What happened to it, bluntly, is that the cold war collapsed and thus we felt we no longer had to justify the expense of putting humans into space, especially when robots and spacecraft can do whatever we could do better and cheaper. In practice, I don’t have a problem with this, because a manned space program is expensive and one really does have to question the value of humans in space when pretty much everything they can do can be done better with machines. In theory, I suspect that there could be some value of having a significant human outpost in near space — or could have been, had we used the moon shots as a stepping stone for a further manned presence of space, rather than patriotic cock-swinging, to be zipped up once we showed those damn Soviets who was the boss of space. Our hearts just weren’t into staying in space; we proved we could get to the moon, after all. What more do you want? But we could have made it work — made it so that a human presence in near space, at the very least, would be something useful and enduring and complementary to our machine-based presence in space.
But we didn’t, and now for the near future our manned space presence will be confined to the decidedly unromantic ISS and a few entrepreneurs catering to the rich who want to tell their friends how they did that whole Yuri Gagarin thing. And while I wouldn’t spend the ridiculous amounts of money currently required to do that — this science fiction writer could think of better things to do with that money, starting with drawing down his mortgage — if someone wanted to front me the trip rather than using the money to, say, feed hungry orphans, I’d take it. It’d be fun to write about afterward. I just hope the toilet works when I get up there.
(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)