|Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon (NASA)|
Buzz Aldrin called this week. Twice. Which was not the amazing part. The amazing part was that I tried to duck the calls, telling his handler that I had just, the day before, talked with the Apollo 8 astronauts, so unfortunately my column's quota for 1960s space nostalgia was used up for the time being.
Even as I was doing it, as politely as possible, I was watching myself, stunned at how fast the incredible becomes mundane. In a flash.
If Plato showed up at your door this morning, you would of course be thrilled -- excited that he came in, sat down and talked about the ideal city all morning. Splendid. You serve him coffee on the good china.
Even more incredible, he shows up again the next day. A life changing experience. Four hours on reality. You videotape it.
The following day, again with the Plato. He talks about education. You phone up a few friends and tell them to hurry over.
But by the fourth day—I guarantee it— you'd find yourself waking up and thinking, "I sure hope that Plato guy doesn't show up today. I've got a lot of errands to run."
That's how people are. Not that I wasn't interested in talking to the second man to step on the moon. But I figured, he's busy, I'm busy, why waste both our time if the conversation isn't going to end up in the newspaper?
But I took the calls from Aldrin anyway. You sort of have to. That's why those space guys do so well in business. When a fellow who has been to the moon calls, you talk to him, even if he's only promoting his plan to put tourists into space.
Thank goodness Aldrin wasn't selling vacuum cleaners. We already have six at home -- seriously, six vacuum cleaners, of varying configurations and power, if you count Dustbusters. Don't ask me why, ask the wife. Still, if Aldrin were selling vacuums, we'd have seven.
Instead, he has a program called ShareSpace. He wants to get the space shuttles privatized, build hotels in space, and start flying "citizen explorers" up to those hotels. There aren't enough rich people who'll pay huge ticket prices for a quick trip to space, so some seats will be apportioned by a kind of lottery; you pay $10 or $20, you get a shot at getting on a flight.
He talked about it at great length, the way that semi-retired guys who are in the grip of passions will. There would be side benefits.
"By bringing down the cost of access to space, we open up exploration to much more affordable means," he said. "Once you have spacecraft in orbit, it is relatively easy with low-thrust engines to journey to the moon and to Mars. Recycling reusable spaceships is the key to reducing the cost barrier."
OK so far -- I wouldn't bet my money on it happening, but then I thought cell phones were a fad. His main purpose seemed to be to get those "citizens" into space for their own good. The science was secondary. Aldrin, who has visited the North Pole and the wreck of the Titanic, sees putting people in space as the next logical development in the adventure travel business.
I have trouble with that, just as I had trouble with the Apollo 8 astronauts calling the moon landing a political gambit first and a scientific quest a distant second. Did he, I wanted to know, agree with that? That we school kids had been duped into believing humanity was learning something by all this? What good was going to the moon?
"The value, as I've been trying to tell people, of the space program, of Apollo anyway, was not the rocks that were brought back, but that people were excited about it," he said. "There was a sense of involvement, something that touched them, affected their lives. People remember where they were when there was the landing on the moon. That's an enrichment of people's lives."
So the whole thing was entertainment? A really, really expensive pageant to get Americans to feel good about themselves and forget for a while the nasty old Soviet Union and that terrible war in Vietnam.
"I wouldn't want to call it 'entertainment,' " he said. "I would call it participation in historic activities, in events of significance. If you witnessed the Hindenburg airship explode, if you listened to the radio when Pearl Harbor was attacked, these were catastrophic events, major events in history. So many times the news is about adverse events happening, but occasionally there were achievements of great success."
We went into space to generate good news. Lovely. And now, one of the space pioneers wants to see that every stock trader with $ 50,000 to burn can get an 8-by-10 glossy of himself in a jumpsuit, giving the thumbs up, floating around his hotel lobby, grinning like an idiot.
Just like that pesky dead philosopher always showing up at your door, there can be too much of a good thing. I think that space travel will lose value once people flock to it as a lark, the same way that mountaineering has lost a lot of its cachet
And now we're talking about going to Mars. Why bother?
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 6, 1998
|Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag (NASA)|