Down to earth: A childhood obsession with space
When the last Space Shuttle returns this week, it will be the end of an era. For those who grew up in the 1970s, like the self-confessed obsessive Samira Ahmed, it also signifies the betrayal of a childhood dream
Monday 18 July 2011
When will we be able to live in colonies on other planets, like Mars?"
It was an obvious question for an 11-year-old, perhaps. When my parents took me on holiday in the 1970s to Cape Canaveral and Houston's Nasa Mission Control Centre, the campuses were abuzz with excitement about the new "reusable" spacecraft. In 1979 I wrote my question on a visitor enquiry card, dropped it into a wooden box outside the tourist cafeteria and waited.
The promise came three months later in a white envelope with the new 1970s "worm" Nasa logo, an arrow of hope through the letterbox into my dull suburban life. In thick purple ink from a manual typewriter a Nasa employee had typed a personal reply.
The gist of it was: "Dear Samira, we all dream of deep space travel and living on other worlds. We believe our new Space Shuttle programme is a very exciting and important next step in the development of manned space exploration, enabling astronauts to make frequent missions and develop a permanent space station in orbit."
I didn't keep the letter. I didn't need to. They'd answered my question. The Space Shuttle was a logical step in the evolution of manned space exploration.
It's hard for anyone under 30 to appreciate just how much optimism my generation had about the future of space travel because of the Space Shuttle and what an essential dream it was against the chilling nightmare of the Cold War and terrorist hijackings. The Cold War had fuelled the Space Race, had put men on the Moon, but on Earth it fed, to children like me, a grinding, deep fear of nuclear war. Many of the sci-fi movies playing in the cinema or on TV were set in a post apocalyptic world, like Logan's Run, Silent Running or Beneath the Planet of the Apes. My mother seemed to delight in making her children watch every TV programme about the effects of a nuclear blast. "We need to know this," she would insist, sitting us down to watch yet another documentary on the effects of radiation sickness. Most of my school compositions of the late 1970s and early 1980s featured nuclear apocalypses or me being kidnapped and held hostage by Italian and German Red Army Brigade guerrilla groups.
The Space Shuttle was like its 1970s predecessors, reported regularly on Newsround and the evening news, and a vital counterbalance to the violence and threat of geopolitics. There was even space diplomacy – the 1975 linkup between the Russian Soyuz space station and American Apollo mission, and Skylab – America's first experimental manned orbital space station, launched in 1976. Most importantly, our young minds were encouraged to think on a cosmic scale – we absorbed the philosophical wonder of the Voyager probes, launched in 1977, carrying messages from mankind as they headed off towards the edge of our Solar System.
And if the cinema was mostly full of apocalypse, the Shuttle was white and properly "futuristic", yet like the Pan-Am shuttlecraft to the orbital wheel space station in 2001:A Space Odyssey, familiar-looking. It was also linked to the warmth and grand, optimistic vision of Star Trek repeats and Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series, which visualised with real science the idea of going where no one had gone before. I can still remember the moment he rolled a ball across a blanket to explain space warps and worm holes – the theoretical possibility of a "fast transit system" to our nearest stars. The Shuttle would be a step to getting there.
Many of the Nasa scientists working on the Shuttle programme had been inspired by Star Trek, naming the first orbiter Enterprise. At the heart of its creation was the idea of democratising space travel. The 1970s vogue for what was rather unsexily termed "unisex" styles (matching big hair and top-to-toe denim) was actually the realisation of the 1960s civil rights dream of equality. The Shuttle was the first unisex spacecraft.
With Nasa promoting broader recruitment, the idea of more routine space travel within 30 or 40 years seemed actually plausible for the 11-year-old me.
Presenter Maggie Philbin left children's TV to join Tomorrow's World in 1982, the year after the first Shuttle launch, where her enthusiasm inspired many viewers. "The promise was that it was ushering in a new era of routine space travel," she says now. "I sometimes wonder if it was down to the design itself. It looked like a plane. We could imagine ourselves strapped in there." The name "Shuttle" suggested a mundane public transport system, like Freddie Laker's SkyTrain, which had just brought affordable trans-Atlantic air tickets to travel-hungry Britain. Perhaps therein lay the seeds of its doom, marketing-wise. For all the 1970s loveliness of its white curved wings, it was just a plane. Piggybacking on a jumbo jet infantilised it. Applying some amateur psychoanalysis, might the orbiter's domestic shape – like an iron – have made it in the public subconscious "weak" and "female" compared to the phallic rockets upon which it relied? Within a year it had been lampooned in Airplane II.
Physicist and science author Marcus Chown was a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena in 1983 when he drove out with friends to watch one land at Edwards Air Force base: "I remember staring into the bright sunny sky until someone shouted excitedly: 'There it is!'" he recalls. "And there it was, a tiny black speck, a spaceship returning to Earth. Immediately I lost it in the glare. It was coming down far faster than a plane – 26-times the speed of sound – and in an arc. It was impossible to follow it. Double supersonic booms rocked the desert. The next thing I knew, it had landed." Most of the crowd immediately got in their cars and drove off. But Chown waited and was rewarded: "Real spacemen, in their blue astronaut jumpsuits... were walking towards us across the shimmering desert."
The Space Shuttle was the next in a remarkable line of energy-hungry, super-noisy, ultrafast engineering marvels that every 1970s British child knew. Thanks to Sir Christopher Cockerell, my generation got to experience the vomit-inducing rollercoaster delights of hovercraft day trips to the strange otherworldly civilisation of France. Rocketing over the choppy waters of a stormy Channel was a reasonable substitute for the G-forces of take off.
We all stopped in my south London school playground to look up in wonder and desire, every time we heard the roar of Concorde as it powered up from Heathrow Airport on its transatlantic mission.
As a Channel 4 News reporter I found myself writing and broadcasting the obituary of each Concorde with a lump in my throat. Created just a few years before the 1973 Oil Crisis, their fate was, like the Shuttle's, linked to their inalterable thirst for fossil fuel. And the Space Shuttle had been compromised from the start. It was supposed to be re-usable, gliding in to land, in contrast to the massive rockets of the Mercury and Apollo programmes. There was an early eco-promise in that. As Marcus Chown points out: "Instead we got a sorry compromise, with solid fuel boosters which had to be replaced and giant fuel tanks that had to be collected from the sea."
In 1993 the Star Trek spin-off show, The Next Generation, which had brought empathy counsellors and a crèche aboard the Enterprise, found that warp speed itself was damaging the fabric of the universe and would have to stop. It seemed a metaphor for what had happened to the space programme. So when did I know that the Space Shuttle was a broken promise? The 1986 Challenger disaster, the year I left school, was, with hindsight, probably the watershed. It was suddenly old.
Precious Nasa resources had to be spent on making it safe again, not developing the next step to the stars.
The video gaming that emerged in the early 1980s seemed connected at first to the space programme. But the internet, games consoles like the Wii, the iPad, the handheld shopping scanner I use in the supermarket – all science fiction made science fact – have grounded us in consumerism. An atomised generation, we can play fabulous simulator games, but the grand vision of joint human endeavour and facing a new frontier has gone.
The best hope an 11-year-old today has of making it into space is to become a big shot in the City and save up $200,000 for a ride on Virgin Galactic's spacecraft. It's like we're back in the pre-Skytrain age.
It is no coincidence that the most stimulating and innovative area of science fiction and fantasy in the USA and Britain now is steampunk – a retreat into a benign Victorian vision of the future. This engineering-focused Jules Verne and HG Wells' fantasy land is powered by infinite amounts of black smoking fossil fuels and unashamed romantic derring do.
My son, 11 now himself, and his 9-year-old sister – like many modern children – devour Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines novels, in which Victorian cities fly through the air on coal-fuelled steam. At the steampunk exhibition at London's Kew Bridge Steam Museum this summer, many lovers of space travel will be watching 19th-century Cornish beam steam turbines at work, or taking part in tea-duelling. There is nothing in the sky to look up at from the playground.
The Nasa administrator and former Shuttle astronaut, Charles Bolden, was on the defensive at the time of Atlantis' last launch on 8 July, insisting: "We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking necessary and difficult steps today to ensure America's pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come."
But we feel in our hearts that Nasa's grand dream has been scuppered by political reality. The Agency was pushed to divert resources on a wild mission-to-Mars project by President Bush in 2004, then informed by post-credit crunch Barack Obama that no, we can't.
So what do I have left of the Shuttle era? There's my T-shirt with the 1975 Nasa "worm" logo, bought on a trip to the Huntsville rocket centre in Alabama; its streamlined shape, like the Shuttle, designed to suggest a "modern" vision of space travel. That logo was abandoned in 1992 for a return to the 1950s motif – Nasa itself trying to channel a kind of Right Stuff nostalgia. I have a small rubber fridge magnet of the Shuttle. I bought it at Cocoa Beach, in Florida where my husband and I took our infant son to watch the Mars Odyssey probe launch in 2001. And there's the giant print of Saturn, one of the many tantalising glimpses into deeper space, taken by the Hubble Telescope that hangs in our house – images that were only made possible by the engineering feat of those brave astronauts who fixed it in the Shuttle bay; mechanics, not new world explorers.
I follow Nasa's Voyager2 Twitter stream, which updates its distance as it moves towards the edge of the heliosheath at the furthest boundaries of our solar system. It epitomises the gulf between the dream and my domestic internet-enabled entrapment.
When Atlantis touches down for the last time I will do what I have always done. Stop, listen to the understated calm Nasa TV commentary and watch in silence and awe as the supersonic bird arcs down for the last time.
When it does, it will indeed, for me, finally, be childhood's end.
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