I Like To Watch

After more than 20 years of operations, NASA provided a new view of a shuttle launch on Monday, as they returned to flight after a four-month hiatus.

For the first time, television and internet viewers of the launch were able to see first the launch pad, then Cape Canaveral, then Florida, and finally the earth itself get rapidly smaller as the shuttle ascended on its tail of fire.

It wasn't perfect. The director kept cutting to other cameras, and the most spectacular event, the separation of the solid rocket boosters, was not shown. Even if it had been, the viewers may have seen nothing but an instantaneous fogging of the lens from it, because the view afterwards was obscured by some sort of deposit. For the next flight, presumably, the agency will have some kind of lens protection to allow a clearer view for a longer time.

Despite those teething pains, it provided a thrilling, if vicarious experience and I'm glad they did it. In theory, the television viewers could have seen the astronauts in the windshield of the Orbiter as it wended its way to orbit, and gotten a vital and real feeling for the experience of the high-gravity acceleration to long-term weightlessness.

And in the context of the total cost of a launch, it cost very little and may offer a little more excitement on future launches. It may also inspire a few more kids to get interested in space. If it does, I hope that the promise is better kept to them than it was to a previous generation.

But despite my approval, it reminds me also that our nation's space program and policy remains, fundamentally, one designed primarily for the elite.

In the book (and movie) "Being There," the simpleton Chance the Gardener tells a television reporter (in reference to his television viewing habits, though it's amusingly misinterpreted), "I like to watch."

It's the anthem of the passive voyeur, the couch potato, the Monday-morning quarterback. And apparently, at least when it comes to space (though we see it to a lesser degree with sports and other entertainment as well), the American people like to watch. Or at least, to the degree that they're interested at all, that's how they exhibit their interest in it. Of course, they've never been offered any other options, so it's hard to tell.

From the earliest days of the space age, the American public has been offered no other option except to watch. The Mercury program produced seven supermen, who had been tested by their willingness to chance their lives against the vagaries of aerial combat and new, untested aircraft. The next class of astronauts were selected even more rigorously to defeat the Soviets on the gladiatorial field of the moon race.

In the late 1970s, NASA opened up the exclusive club to women and minorities, but only to those who had the requisite advanced engineering degrees and willingness to hew to the official party line in interviews with the media. Of course, it never would have occurred to our national space agency that millions of other American people might have wanted to participate, and not just as engineers or other NASA employees, but as people who could actually go.

That wouldn't fit the paradigm, because if just anyone could go, that would mean that NASA's criteria for choosing their superhuman X-men astronauts were bogus, and that maybe space wasn't as hard as it was made out to be.

But I have a feeling that the American people aren't the voyeurs that NASA assumes. I think that if someone offered them a ride, at a price they could afford, they'd be heck-bent to go.

Other people think so, too. The Futron coroporation has done some market research on the subject, and they're selling the report for amounts in the three-figure range, which means either that the market for that kind of information is significant, or they are deluding themselves. I'm hoping for the former, and based on other data acquired over the years, this is not a futile hope.

I suspect that many would like to not just look at astronauts through the windshield of the Orbiter as it ascends, but look at video of themselves in such a position. They won't even care if it's the NASA space shuttle--any vehicle will do. They want to drink deep the draught of life, to experience it themselves, and they don't want to live their lives only through the experiences and the television pictures of their betters.

NASA, and the administration, should base its policy on the assumption that, when it comes to space, the American people are no longer content to merely "watch."


I got a lot of response to last week's column on the Sputnik anniversary. Too much, in fact, to include here, but most of it was positive--it must have struck a chord, particularly with my generation. This was gratifying, particularly as some of it came from current and former NASA employees. They're as frustrated as the rest of us, folks.

More interesting, of course, was the (limited) dissent.

One reader commented that my timeline was off. Bomb shelters didn't come into vogue until the early 1960s, (probably around the time of the Cuban missile crisis). He's right, because if I had memories of that, given my age, that would have been the appropriate timeframe--I was in diapers and not paying much attention to safety from nuclear weapons at the time of the dawning of the space age.

In a similar vein, someone else commented that the "duck and cover" drills in the school hallway did in fact have value, as the likely radiation (assuming that one wasn't killed in the blast itself) was still a better alternative than being killed from falling debris. Probably correct.

Of more heated dispute was my contention that Eisenhower had a deliberate policy of allowing the Soviets to launch the first satellite in order to put to bed the overflight issue. As the discussion at my weblog (by top space historians) indicates, this was almost certainly an overstatement of the situation. While they weren't unhappy about the outcome (at least until they bore the brunt of the public reaction), there is no evidence that this was actually the Eisenhower administration's plan.

Finally, some took umbrage at my characterization of our space policy, then and now, as "socialism." A typical response was that private companies carried out the activities (with NASA funding).

Sorry, but socialism is as socialism does. It's defined not by who actually does the work, but by who pays for it. If the Soviet Union had contracted to purchase goods or services from a private western contractor, I don't think that many would decide to therefore call it a capitalist state. The problem with the civil space progam in the U.S. (at least the manned portion of it), is that there's currently a single purchaser of the services for it (NASA). NASA is a government agency. It's a monopsony procurer (a term and perhaps subject for a future column).

If that's not socialism, I don't know what is.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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