Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Space Case

I'm a child of the space age. I had picture books about the as-yet-unrealized hope of landing on the moon. I had records (yes, records) of songs about outer space. We left elementary school classes to go down to the gym to crowd around a small black and white TV, watching the historic flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. And I was a young teenager when men did finally walk on the moon, marring it forever with footprints and litter.

I always knew that the space program, and the moon landing in particular, were phenomenal accomplishments of engineering and technology. Humankind always needs heroes, so we saluted the brave astronauts who flew these historic missions, but the real work was done by the engineers. The astronauts could, and sometimes did, fill the jobs that could have been performed by a dog or a chimp. Of course, having humans enabled us to learn much more on these flights, and to salvage missions that would otherwise have gone awry, but the actual accomplishment of space travel was an engineering feat. This is why Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, and the later movie, were so misguided. They depicted the engineers as a bunch of buffoons who needed the astronauts to set things straight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nevertheless, the astronauts were unquestionably heroic. They were certainly courageous and valiant. They underwent arduous and grueling training. They confronted unknown obstacles. And when problems arose, they proved themselves resourceful, energetic and fearless. In fact (and in fiction), they were the ultimate role models ... cleaner then boy scouts, hardier than baseball players, and more wholesome and American than a Norman Rockwell painting.

And that is why the news of an astronaut's being arrested for attempted kidnapping is such a blow. This former shuttle crew member was involved in a tawdry love triangle which included a shuttle pilot from another mission. She drove 900 miles, donned a disguise, and attempted to abduct her love rival in a parking lot.

I'm not sure which is more shocking ... how the entire profession of "astronaut" and the values linked to the space age are now horribly debased, or that some TV writer didn't come up with this first! Well, they will now.

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