Monday, February 26, 2007

Roger, go at throttle up: A crisis of imagination

I read a lot of science fiction. I always have. I grew up in the era of the space shuttle and remember when the idea of a space station was just speculation. I was young, but as a little boy, the concept of space travel and worlds beyond our own seemed like an incredible dream. The idea that we could actually make that dream a reality left me awestruck by the pure potential of the human race.

Then there was the Challenger.

When you say "The Challenger," nobody thinks of the missions she flew successfully, of the experiments completed, the safe landing. All anyone remembers is the explosion, the knotted plumes of smoke, the shock, the disbelief.

For a long time after that, too long, the space program was put on hold. The bright, shining dream lost its power. NASA's miracle machine was broken.

A new theme emerged in science fiction writing. Instead of looking at the eventual conquest of space by the United States, authors started to ask "what if we never go back?" Or, far worse to some, they asked, "what if America gets left behind?"

Maybe it's because I'm older and I hear more of such talk, or maybe not, now I hear people question whether or not the space program is worth the money, whether or not taxpayer dollars could be spent on something "more important."

Another space shuttle blew up, and the seven souls who were lost on the Columbia were duly honored, but the sense of shock was not there.

When the space shuttle Atlantis experienced minor issues during a recent flight, the crew went to wait at the space station while things were checked out.

They went to the space wait. I remember when the idea of even having a permanent orbital station was pure sci-fi, let alone actually using it like a rest stop! Yet, the lack of apparent public excitement was disappointing.

I was reminded of this, and thought of this genre of science fiction writing when I read a recent story "Titanium Mike Saves the Day," by David E. Levine. It's in the current issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It's a good story.

I'm rambling a bit, but right now I'm consumed by a sense of regret about how the glow has faded on the space program. On another night, I could tell you why I think it's important, why I care, and why losing that sense of wonder is such a terrible thing for America.

Right now, I just think of the last recorded words of Commander Dick Scobee. They were part of the standard procedures, a call and response between control and the vehicle. When mission control informed him that they were "go at throttle up," Scobee responded with, "Roger, go at throttle up."

Not very dramatic, but he was on a spaceship, on his way out of the atmosphere. He was headed into a place that those of us who still dream only dream of. He was going to the stars.

All in all, not bad last words after all.