Planets of Desire

The Human Impulse for Space Travel

by Jonathan Wallace

Watching a launch

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a shuttle launch, something I had wanted to do for many years. I was at an unpleasant, rather depressing and endless meeting in DisneyWorld, a place which I dislike because it is completely plastic and excludes anything natural. I was aware that the Endeavor was due to launch at four the following morning, carrying the first American piece of space station Freedom, and I had casually mentioned to several of my colleagues the possibility of driving to Canaveral to view it. Everyone said they had always wanted to see a launch, but immediately added that to go in the night would be too exhausting. One co-worker noted he needed to be fresh for golf in the morning.

I went back to my room, having all but relinquished the idea. I thought Canaveral was two hours away and feared driving on unknown roads in the middle of the night; I tire easily and would never usually set out for a night drive of more than half an hour. I drank a beer, logged on to the Net and quickly found a Florida paper which covered all local NASA operations in detail. I found that everything was on schedule for the launch and that Canaveral was only 45 miles from Orlando. At that moment I began to experience the nagging desire which comes close to making one's choice inevitable: one can relieve it only by obeying it, and if one flouts it one is permanently disappointed, even to the extent of remembering the failure to act years later. The universe had arranged to have me in Florida at the same time as a shuttle launch; for years I had thought I would have to schedule a vacation around one, in a part of Florida I didn't particularly like, and risk the disappointment of a scrub, which could result in my having come to Florida for nothing. Now all that separated me from the fulfillment of a desire was to get in a car at one in the morning and drive for one hour.

At the time I was re-reading Proust, who has many interesting things to say about desires and fulfillments, notably: "Our desires interfere with one another, and, in the confusion of existence, it is rare that a fulfillment comes and perches exactly on the desire which called for it." But sometimes one desire subordinates all others: in this case the wish for sleep, for comfort, not to brave roads in darkness, and to be alert for the company's events the next day, were meaningless in comparison to the opportunity to observe a launch.

I turned to my roommate, a long time co-worker and friend, and he said he would accompany me. A little later we were in the car; the drive was not terrible, though a little alarming as we passed through patches of fog. We arrived in Cape Canaveral and sat in a line of cars trying to enter the Kennedy Space Center. Having no passes, we were turned away, as we knew we would be, but the police directed us down the highway into Titusville. Within moments we had arrived at an inviting stretch where thousands of cars were parked on the shoulder. Across the water we could see the gantry, clearly illuminated, with a searchlight directed up into the sky. An opening in the clouds over the space center enlargened itself.

Around us was a momentary community formed to watch the launch. People were friendly and familiar; many were old-timers who had seen many previous launches. Vendors sold hot dogs, coffee, and shuttle souvenirs. A minister who ran a home for teenagers in trouble had a cart across the road; I received coffee and a danish pastry in return for a donation. I wandered around while my friend slept in the rental Lincoln. We had more than an hour to spare.

I had read that a decision to launch would require a coordination of several factors. The spacecraft had to be ready, the sky above it clear, and one of three possible emergency landing sites around the world had to be cloud-free as well. The web site I had viewed earlier in the evening had said there was only a seventy percent chance of launch, due to inclement weather around us and at the emergency sites.

The Endeavor's mission involved matching orbits with a Russian space tug. In order to get into the correct orbit, the Endeavor had only a ten minute window to launch, from about five of four until five after.

At ten minutes before the hour, someone turned on a portable radio and we listened to the countdown. At nineteen seconds to go, a gauge indicated that the fuel tanks were insufficiently pressurized and a hold was declared. The reading was false, but time ran out. "Scrubbed," yelled the man with the radio, and the entire community got quietly into its cars. People were pulling out within a minute afterwards, and with a minimum of grumbling.

The drive back was very hard, as my exhaustion hit. I was talking, grimacing, pinching myself to stay awake. Nothing but social activities, which I was willing to miss, were scheduled for the next day. I slept a few hours that morning, and a few in the afternoon.

I am sure that Proust also comments somewhere that people are obscurely pleased by the failure of others, even a friend, to achieve their desires. The same people who, at company meetings in past years, were entertained when I didn't catch anything on a fishing trip, seemed smug that the launch had been scrubbed. I had consolidated my reputation of a person whose desires were at right angles to everyone else's, a man on a limb.

It added to the reputation, though it didn't comfort me, that the scrub the night before was the first since 1995. Nineteen missions had launched on schedule since the last postponement.

It was predictable I would go back again, even though for much of the day I thought I wouldn't. I was constantly testing the amount of remorse I expected to feel in the future if I didn't go--- a strange exercise, like poking a wound that isn't there yet. I figured I would be able to let myself off the hook because at least I had tried to achieve my desire. But in the afternoon I again began recruiting people for the trip. My friend from the night before announced he wouldn't try again. Five others said they would come---too many to fit comfortably in the Lincoln with me. At this point I had overbooked the trip like an airline does, reasonably confident that some of the group would fall out. As in fact two did.

The DisneyWorld meeting was primarily for the sales people, and it is very interesting that the three who climbed into the Lincoln at two in the morning were not. They were others whose desires could be said to be at right angles to the community, as mine were.

My thoughts floated over two subjects. One was that it was outrageous, over my limit, to lose a second night of sleep. But my desire had strengthened again in the course of the day: the Kennedy Space Center was close, this time the roads were familiar and someone else would share the driving. It was easier to go than not.

The second topic was the difficulty of enterprises that require the cooperation of other people. Thoreau has some choice words in Walden about how much easier it is to speed down the trail yourself than to wait for another to be ready to start. I have done much more hiking alone in my life than I have with other people.

At midnight, when two of the band said they wouldn't go, I thought about calling the other three to cancel the trip. I didn't believe that one of the remaining group would show up, and wasn't sure the other two were drivers. Frightened by the experience I had had the night before, I knew I didn't want to drive round trip again, either alone or with passengers. But at one-thirty in the morning, after getting a little more sleep, I was in the lobby. Two of my companions showed up early; I gave the third a wake-up call and he reiterated his eagerness to go.

I hadn't planned for the fact that the launch window was thirty minutes earlier than the night before; we were leaving fully an hour later. Instead of arriving with an hour to spare, it was clear we were going to cut it very close. At one point we had twenty-four minutes until the launch, and twenty miles to go. Someone else drove---ten or fifteen miles an hour faster than I would have. But we again wound up in a line of traffic at the space center. This time, the police were not letting anyone in; they quickly diverted everyone into Titusville. We parked exactly where I had the night before, with ten minutes to spare. I went directly to one of the vendors and bought some things I had coveted the night before: a model of the shuttle and a space-suited astronaut. I frequently identify things I want on one orbit and acquire them on the next. Sometimes that isn't so easy; I haven't been back to Crete to buy the little replica of a double-headed axe I admired on my last visit.

I was very worried that the mission would scrub a second time, which would cause my peers back at Disney a lot of amusement. Again someone had a radio; we listened to a countdown without holds. At three-thirty, the brightest flare I had ever seen began to rise silently from the gantry five miles away across the water. Under it a wide column of smoke. When it was halfway up the sky, a rumble from the beginning of the world reached us. Just then the boosters separated; we couldn't see them, but the flare ended and a little bright star detached itself from the smoke and, like my desires, travelled at right angles to it. It went down towards the horizon until, a minute or so later, it was lost in the haze.

A child looks to space

I was three years old when Sputnik was launched in 1957. I remember being aware, a little later, that the Russians had sent a dog into space, and that my own country was now sending men.

In kindergarten, when we drew or painted, I made pictures of rockets. When I could read well enough to go to the library and select books on my own, the first book I picked was Heinlein's The Star Beast, and I began a lifelong affair with science fiction. His Have Spacesuit Will Travel, in which a boy wins a spacesuit and then is abducted to space while wearing it, echoed back all of my own daydreams.

My best bar mitzvah present was a 2.5 inch refractor. The other neighborhood children came over to our backyard on summer nights to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, the double star Mizar and the Orion Nebula. For me, these were all objects of fascination and beauty, but they were also the names of places where stories could occur. An immediate aura of adventure and romance resulted from the words "One autumn, when I was making a visit to the Magellanic Clouds" as surely as they did from a story beginning "One year of my youth, I was second mate aboard a coasting freighter in the Orient."

I remember a story about a man who transformed himself into a particularly clumsy and ugly shape in order to be able to survive on Jupiter, only to discover that life was so much more intense and beautiful there, his senses so much more developed, that he did not wish to return to being human.

There was a phone number at the American Museum of Natural History which you could call for a recording describing astronomical phenomena, including the time at which satellites passed over. We learned to look for these little bright voyagers.

I had a strong filter for the telescope which allowed me to look at the sun: we saw how it was eaten by sunspots, and I worried it would go out one day, as it does in science fiction stories of the very distant future.

Every August, on Cape Cod, we collected some of the other children and went out to a local gold course, where we would lay on the side of a hill or in a sand trap and watch the Perseid meteor shower (today, more than thirty years later, my wife and I watch it from the beach in Montauk).

Space represented beauty, adventure, the ability of a small individual to be brave and important to others; most of all, it represented escape from a world that, even very early on, didn't seem to make any sense, where events ran round in well-regulated patterns and people worked for no reason but to have a little leisure when they were old, and to raise children so they could do the same.

In Brooklyn, where I lived, you could see a bit of sky: a few constellations, like the Dipper, and the planets. When I could get away, as in the summer, to a place without light pollution, where it was really dark, where the Milky Way stood out like a stream of luminescent sand poured from a child's bucket, I would lie on the ground looking up and feel as if it was possible to fall off of the earth and into the sky.

I felt that if an alien recruiter had appeared, as in a Heinlein novel, and offered me a glorious role in a farflung galactic intrigue, nothing would have kept me on earth. I would have left its "cloud-capped towers" and "all which they do inherit" in an instant.

When humans finally went to the moon, I was fifteen years old, cutting school, barely on speaking terms with my family. The night of "one small step for man" and the first live broadcast of people on the moon, I sat in my parents' bedroom a few minutes, watching my old dream. But I slipped away, unable to watch any more because I sensed I was no longer on the level of my dream.

An adult's desire

That hiatus in my life had a tremendous effect on my future. I barely graduated high school with a general degree, having flunked math. I went to Brooklyn College under the open admissions program, took liberal arts classes, made good grades, transferred to Columbia and was admitted to Harvard Law School right out of college. But the hole in my education dictated that I could never enter the sciences; the child who had various times said that he wanted to be a herpetologist, ichthyologist, entomologist or astronomer was only qualified to enter a profession where reading comprehension, logic and argument were everything but science counted for nothing.

I never stopped reading science fiction, though. For three years, from age 15 to 18, it was almost all I read. I still watched the Perseids and dreamed about losing myself in the sky. Falling up.

In 1978, during law school, I got my scuba certification, and have been diving ever since. I only go once or twice a year, easy dives. But the weightlessness I encounter on a coral reef may be the closest I will ever be to going to space.

I read a suspense novel once in which the detective donned scuba gear to examine the wreckage of a plane. The whole scene as described was oddly vertical; the novelist had clearly never dived; his protagonist was strolling on the bottom of the sea. Underwater, up and down are no longer directions determined by gravity, but only by visual cues: the wrinkling mirror of the surface; your bubbles rising; the light slanting down through the coral. Instead of placing your body at right angles to the ground, you can be at any angleto your surroundings. Floating. People who have a hard time on solid earth, who haven't the use of their legs for example, have no disability when diving. Remove gravity and all assumptions and perceptions have to be revised.

In law school I imagined working on the margins of the law. I daydreamed about space law, and the law of the sea. When I finally found a specialty, a year out of law school, it was computer law. There was more there, yet lower barriers to entry for a small fry like myself.

In the 1980's, I didn't follow the space program closely, but was always glad to hear they had launched a shuttle. I was glad people were in space, not for any reason other than to be there. To learn to be there, and to create a platform-- both an intellectual one and a physical one--that would allow us to be there more. Sometimes I read uneasily that there was little economic justification for the shuttle. They couldn't pay for it with the commercial payloads they sometimes took up. The science they did themselves wasn't important science.

I paid more than the usual attention in the weeks prior to the launch of the Challenger. The hype reached me about the schoolteacher in space: I loved the symbolism of a program that would select civilians from different walks of life and take them up. Someone made a comment that the program would reach its apotheosis when the shuttle carried a sixty year old poet.

Christa McAuliffe was selected. She seemed like a solid, stolid, middle American woman, not an artist but not an idiot, someone reliable, with good common sense, beloved by children. It was hard not to endorse the rightness of the choice, especially after interviews which established how seriously she took her mission.

In the office on the morning of the launch, one of the secretaries got a call from her mother who had just seen the Challenger explosion live on television. At one o'clock, I had a flight to Miami, where I was litigating a trademark case. I checked into my hotel room, turned on the TV, and saw the horrible image, the trailing strands of smoke in the sky, repeated endlessly for the rest of the day. In the mix of emotions, including shock and loss, I had a selfish thought: There goes my own chance of going into space as a tourist. This will set back the space program just long enough that I will be too old. Because I had never, until that moment, given up hope of space.

The Challenger disaster represents the dark side of human endeavor, the moment at which vanity and self delusion kill, not the people experiencing them, but the people relying on those people. There were political pressures to launch. No-one wanted to be responsible for scrubbing the "Scholteacher in Space" mission. The O-rings were known to be vulnerable at low temperatures and the unusually cold weather was far below the lowest temperature at which a shuttle had ever been launched. Throughout the day and night prior, there were voices within NASA and its contractor calling for a scrub. They were disregarded and seven people died. It was a moment to stop and ask, are we really up to this. It would have been bad enough if the people who died were all professionals who had signed up for this risk, this life. But Christa McAuliffe relied, fatally, on a misrepresentation that space travel had been made safe for schoolteachers. Human self-deception had killed the "Schoolteacher in Space."

Preserve us from accountants

The answer to the question, "Why do we go into space?" is certainly not one that an accountant could provide. I used to feel sorry that there wasn't a planet right next door where the air was breathable, or which was laden with gold or with oil, so that people had an immediate economic explanation why its worth our while to leave earth.

Economics deals with certainties, not risks. Financial projections are all division and multiplication, no variables. To go somewhere we have never been before, based on the desire to see what is there, and the hope that you will be able to retrofit a financial justification based on something you find, is not an economic motive. The economics is adduced later as a rationalization, a retrospective justification, for the desire.

Humans walked across land bridges or navigated straits before there was money, and probably before there was language. They presumably were not all driven by hunger or climactic conditions. The urge to wander and explore exists in many other animals and is not one of those human constructs which require the existence of language as a condition. Thus, when we ask the question, "What is the economic justification for space travel?" we are speaking a language which couldn't be more inappropriate to the question at hand.

Space travel as an artistic act

One of the complaints leveled at the space program around the time I watched the launch of the Endeavor was that it has very little in the way of scientific justification and diverts funding from more serious projects like the Supercollider.

This is a means/ends controversy. If the space program is regarded as the means to an end, naturally we end up debating whether the goal is worth it. If it is seen as an end in itself, we have a very different discussion.

Characterizing the space program as science lands us squarely in the debate over its value. Any discussion of whether to fund science assumes a cost/benefit analysis of a means to a utilitarian goal. A utilitarian goal is "we will be able to grow more grain per acre" or "fewer children will die of diseases" or "we will learn about forces which we may harness to produce energy." Conducting discussions of this nature tilts the balance in favor only of applied science.

In fact, the same analysis applies to the supercollider. The project got cancelled because not enough people believed that there would be a clear financial benefit in looking under the quantum hood. The vocabulary and frame of reference of the discussion did not admit of an answer like "Because it will be beautiful." If funding bodies routinely evaluated the likely beauty of the resulting experience, we would have no trouble finding money either for the space program or the supercollider.

When I went to Titusville two nights in a row to see the launch of the Endeavor, I didn't do it because I would make money from it, or be able to command a higher salary, or sell my house or car for a higher price. I did it because I had a long-standing, deeply rooted desire to watch a launch. Because if I went, I would feel like a more complete person. And if I didn't, I would regret it and feel empty and disappointed that I had passed it up. Our reasons for going into space are no different than mine for watching a launch.

It is hard to answer the question, "why not spend the money to help the poor instead?" Yes, we could do that instead of any number of things we do. But we must have both compassion and adventure; as the old labor song went, "We want bread, but we want roses too." If we only had compassion (or the obsessive attention to detail which so often takes its place), but there was no adventure, something important would have fled. There is something very disturbing in the idea of a human race which has lost any desire to expand, and only wants to cultivate its square acre of ground.

Exploration and morality

Of course, expansion has gotten us into all kinds of trouble. Expansion is the slaughter of other people based on excuses such as lebensraum, divine right, manifest destiny,and imperialism.

Given the way we have fucked up our own planet, there is certainly reason to fear what we would do to other worlds, or the life forms we may find there. Will we repeat 1492 in 2092?

In a recent review of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I quoted the leader of a Japanese expedition that bypassed several dying men to make the summit of Everest on time: "Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality." This is false and even very facile. Morality is a human rulebook; we take it with us wherever we go. People who don't find it convenient in their home towns are the ones most likely to suggest arbitrary boundaries, geographical or otherwise, beyond which the rulebooks won't apply. If they had found the dying men at 7,999 meters, would they have helped them? That "cannot afford" is a version of the argument from necessity: "We were stranded in the lifeboat with only enough food for one person. Therefore, it was necessary that I kill and eat my companion."

The best assurance that I have that we will bring our rulebooks to space can be most succinctly summed up by the following comparison: what is the difference between a member of Columbus' crew and a payload specialist on the Endeavor? The answer: a hell of a lot of education and training. I don't imagine such people would easily leave each other to suffer and die in space on the theory that "you can't afford morality 100 miles up".

Let's go

I heard recently that there is again a chance that within a few years, commercial flights will ferry people into space for $100,000.00 per head.

If it happens, and I have that hundred thousand available, I'll be there. I can't imagine anything I'd rather spend that money on. The sole visible product of the expenditure will be the smile on my face when I return.

Let's go to space to elucidate our human identity, to experience the beauties of weightlessness, of the view of our planet, and of the stars. But let's bring our rulebooks with us.