Saturday, July 16, 2011

The New Normal

As the final Space Shuttle circles the Earth, it's time to reflect on the many advances this program has brought us. Sure there's the Hubble Space Telescope and the first un-tethered, jet pack-powered space walks. Also, our freeze dried camping food is worlds better than it was 30 years ago. But what impresses me most as I step back and survey these 30 years of dramatic space accomplishments is how totally it has normalized astronauts...

In the early days of human space flight, the astronauts were gods. I was a kid then, and while most of my classmates memorized the batting averages of baseball stars, I memorized astronaut stats. I knew all about the original Mercury Seven, the "New Nine," the nameless batch that came after that -- I knew their bios (the official, canned ones at least), their missions, their positions in the spacecraft, and their jobs there (Did you know that in the Gemini program only the Pilot ran the computer and took spacewalks?).

They were almost to a man dynamic, larger-than-life test pilots. It was still possible to be larger-than-life back then, with the help of a good press agent, and NASA had some of the best. Together with the collusion of large portions of the press and the country's mystical covenant to fulfill John Kennedy's vision and reach the Moon by the end of the '60's no matter what it took, the astronauts, who carried Kennedy's torch, became walking silvery myths. They were there to act out the archtypical American story of exploration and conquest-against-all-odds that said something deep about who we truly are.

Then Armstrong and Aldrin touched down successfully, Kennedy's vow was fulfilled, and we moved on. NASA became an ordinary government bureaucracy looking for programs to sustain itself. The Space Shuttle, visualized but never fully realized as part of a triad that also included a space station and a Moon base, was born from the recommendation of a presidential commission.

For 30 years the Shuttle has performed brilliantly. Her crews made 1950's sci-fi a reality.  They built a space station, rescued the Hubble, launched satellites, and just lived for vast periods of time in the hostile emptiness of space. In all, 355 people flew on the Shuttle -- which constitutes a fairly large sample population. As a result only the most inveterate space geek has all the Shuttle crews memorized, let alone their stats.

With such a large cross-section of humanity, the astronaut's bios sound much more like ours now. Out of this sample, we have had astronauts who died of cancer, astronauts who went off the deep end in their attraction for another astronaut, and a good deal of astronaut divorce and infidelity. We now know that infidelity was, unfortunately, not terribly uncommon in the early days, but it didn't find its way into the papers back then. NASA put pressure on the astronaut wives in particular to project a picture-perfect image, regardless of the real story. And in point of fact the first divorce (stemming from an adulterous affair) did not occur until 1969. Incidentally, NASA did not allow that astronaut to fly again, in part for sullying the image of our space heroes.

Shuttle crews have twice been killed in flight, as most of us know. An astronaut is married to a Congresswoman who was shot in an assassination attempt. And sadly, an astronaut committed suicide. The only time we remember their names now is when something "newsworthy" happens to them.

Because performing mind-blowing exploits in outer space isn't newsworthy enough anymore.

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