when will the arts join the sciences in space?

I’ve been caught up in space lately. The combination of the Mars Phoenix lander (arrived a couple weeks ago) and the shuttle (orbiting with the space station the last week or so) plus the NASA channel, and I’m a bit distracted. I watch the space walks, try to imagine the world-view and the weightlessness. I stare at photos of the northern Martian plains.

I’ve always been fascinated with this stuff — well, as much as someone with humanities degrees can understand it (though I did do well in Astronomy and Cosmology as an undergrad).

When the first shuttle went up in 1981, when I was 19, I remember thinking that surely in my lifetime they would get to the point where they would sell passenger rides into space. I even thought the price would be do-able — I don’t know, something like $5000 or $10000 (!). (Now it cost about $4200 to take a ride on a “vomit comet” to experience zero-gravity for 30 seconds at a time.) Even then I knew that NASA, or any other space agency, would not send up anyone but scientists, pilots, and engineers at their own expense. They did decide to send up a K-12 educator in 1986, of course. But even then it was because K-12 educators teach and influence future scientists and engineers.

So 27 years later, it’s clear that it will also be way past my lifetime before NASA sends up, say, a great photographer or great writer or poet, let alone before there’ll be any commercial orbital passenger flights. Don’t get me wrong — the astronauts take some excellent photos and some even write later pretty eloquently about their experiences. And it’s just the usual order of things when exploring a new frontier. No artists or writers went along with Lewis and Clark. The explorers had to draw the pictures and record the thoughts. So it’s just going to be a long, long time before space contains the arts as well as the sciences.

Oh well…

On the other hand, sometimes the more I reflect on the conditions beyond earth (utterly inhospitable to human beings, without sophisticated technology), the more this planet seems like “heaven,” like “paradise,” and the more I’m content to stay right here.

But, still… it’d be nice to read the writings of a deeply reflective and articulate soul who had rode some orbits along with the scientists and engineers.

Erratum, June 23, 2008: Was watching “When We Left Earth” last night and found out that Christa McAuliffe was a social studies teacher. Mea culpa. Makes the challenger explosion that much more heart-breaking (if that’s possible). It’s cool, though, that Barbara Morgan, Christa’s back-up in 1986, became a full-fledged astronaut and flew last year to the space station.


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