I watched the Blue Origin flight yesterday, in which William Shatner joined three others in the very short up-and-back-again space shot yesterday in Jeff Bezos’s interestingly-shaped spacecraft. I have to admit to a certain amount of cynicism as I’ve watched the breathless reactions in recent years to the achievements of a tiny handful of ultra-wealthy white men who have apparently decided that the best thing to do with their vast sums of money, sums that it seems to me a sane society would make it impossible to accumulate in the first place, is to replicate things that the United States government did sixty years ago.
I don’t even mind, really, that this is the way it’s shaping up. The really ground-breaking stuff, the envelope-pushing stuff, needs to be done at the government level, because that’s still the level that can operate in the amounts of capital needed to do the experimental work. If the rich then want to test the waters that have already been explored, that’s great. And that’s what’s been happening…only with a sense of worship about what the Bezoses and the Elon Musks of the world have been accomplishing. I’ve even heard it suggested that maybe now we can just do without NASA entirely, get government out of the space game, and let “Private enterprise” or “the Free Market” or “capitalism” get about the work of really making space exploration happen.
As always, to this I say, “Bollocks.”
On the other hand…a spaceship launched yesterday, and it blasted a capsule into space. Then the launching craft didn’t just tumble back to earth to be swallowed by the sea; it fired its thrusters again, extended four landing legs, and landed right where it started. Meanwhile the capsule completed its trajectory, entered space, arced back down, and parachuted back to earth.
The passengers (I trouble to call them “astronauts”, in all honesty) climbed out then. Three of them hugged and high-fived and cheered and hooted and hollered and sprayed each other with champagne. But the fourth? He, Mr. Shatner of Star Trek (and others) fame, stood off to one side, as if gathering his emotions. This flight had moved him deeply; you could see it in the way he stood. Then he started talking, and said, among other things:
“I mean, the little things, the weightlessness, and to see the blue color whip by and now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing. This covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue around that we have around us. We think ‘oh, that’s blue sky’ and suddenly you shoot through it all of a sudden, like you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness – into black ugliness. And you look down, there’s the blue down there, and the black up there, and there is Mother Earth and comfort and – is there death? Is that the way death is?”
Look, I can be as cynical as anyone about rich people and them treating space like it’s their playground and ignoring the problems of the world and the fact that they profit greatly on some pretty nasty labor practices. But…there’s still space! My heart will never not thrill to a rocket ship blasting away from Earth, or to space passengers disembarking their spacecraft after returning to Earth. And I will never not be moved to hear those returning to Earth talking about the planet’s blue blanket.
Great human achievements are never just so…but they are still great.
Oh yeah, this is supposed to have some music, isn’t it? It’s a Something for Thursday post. Here’s a suite from Bill Conti’s score to The Right Stuff.