24 January 2003

Space

I’m not sure I can explain why space travel means so much to me.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting with my grandfather, watching one of the Apollo moon landings on TV. I’m not sure which one, but since the Lunar Rover was involved it must have been one of the later ones. I would watch Sci Fi TV shows with him as well. “UFO”, in particular, and sometimes “Dr Who” if it wasn’t too scary.

Later I began reading SF, starting with Arthur C. Clarke. By then “Space:1999” was on TV, and soon I read the novel of “2001”. I remember working out how old I would be in the year 2000. With some delight, I calculated that I would be the right age to be one of the people working on the moonbase. So that became my plan.

I learnt everything I could about the space program. I collected books about astronomy, and books with diagrams of how rocket engines worked. I learned about relativity, zero gravity, orbits, black holes, red shifts and how zero gravity bathrooms worked, all before I’d got as far as trigonometry at school. I memorized the sequence of vehicle maneuvers for an Apollo moon landing. I studied souvenir brochures from the Kennedy Space Center, with pictures of the Vehicle Assembly Building, Skylab, Soyuz, Gemini, and the Angry Alligator.

It must have been during the 80s that I slowly realized it wasn’t going to happen. There wasn’t going to be a moonbase by 2000. I felt personally let down, but I could see that there were more important things to worry about. It wasn’t until the 90s, when the Space Shuttle was working and all the plausible excuses had vanished, that I finally accepted the horrible truth: There wasn’t going to be a moonbase, or even a space station, because nobody cared.

Well… I cared, and thousands of other space obsessives worldwide cared of course, but that wasn’t enough to make it happen. The average person on the street couldn’t see the point of space exploration. When I learned that the vast majority of people hadn’t even bothered to watch the last couple of Apollo missions on TV, I was outraged. It was as if Jesus had turned up and given a live TV interview, and people had watched “EastEnders” instead.

And I still haven’t explained why it matters to me. Perhaps it can’t be explained. Maybe I’m an adventurer at heart; after all, I’ve travelled a lot, in spite of the stress. I emigrated to live with a woman I met on the Internet and had spent maybe five weeks of actual time with. I just don’t think of myself as adventurous. Maybe adventurers don’t?

I want to see the Moon, Mars, Alpha Centauri. I want to float weightless. I want to communicate with alien life. I want to watch asteroids tumble in space. I want to watch binary suns set on an alien world. I want to travel the universe, for no other reason than that it’s there.

Sure, I want to travel Earth too. I’d like to go deep sea diving, visit Tokyo, see the Grand Canyon…but there are plenty of other people doing those things. They’re almost mundane. And there’s something so appealing about the cold, unimaginable vastness of space—it’s such a challenge even to truly comprehend it, far less explore it.

This is why alien abduction stories are stupid: The aliens don’t need to abduct people against their will. Plenty of us would go willingly, even if some unpleasant medical procedures were part of the deal. I once explained to my ex that if I had the chance to go travel on an interstellar spacecraft and see the universe, on the condition that I could never return to Earth, I’d go. She couldn’t understand how I could say that, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could turn down that kind of offer.

So, maybe now you understand how much it meant to me to visit the Kennedy Space Center today. It was like a devout Catholic of the Middle Ages visiting the Vatican; I think I had the closest thing to a religious experience that a skeptical atheist can hope for. When I saw the Saturn V that was to have been Apollo 18’s lift stage, I cried.

I saw the Vehicle Assembly Building, and the Shuttle Hangars of the Orbiter Processing Facilities. I stared at my reflection in the gleaming metal of an Apollo Command Module. I watched the 3D IMAX movie filmed on board the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. I saw the old Mercury control room, with its rows of panels and switches and blinking lights. I climbed the LC-39 observation gantry and looked out at the Shuttle launch pads. I saw the crawler transporter, each giant link of its caterpillar tracks weighing a ton. I studied the mission patches and the different spacesuits. I wandered the rocket garden.

Oh, and I also saw an alligator.

The center has the largest shop of space-related merchandise in the world, so obviously my credit card took some additional damage beyond the hit of the bus trip and entrance fee. Obviously I desperately needed a T shirt with a glow-in-the-dark NASA logo, and one with embroidered Apollo, Shuttle and NASA patches… and a few other small items.

I’m tired, but very happy.

Tomorrow, I fly back to Boston.

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© mathew 2017