Kenneth Burns: Space program remains a source of inspiration

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 11:39 PM

If you saw “Super 8,” the hit movie from a few summers ago, you’ll recall scenes that take place in a suburban kid’s cluttered bedroom, circa 1979.

You may have noticed that in addition to Star Wars toys and comic book effluvia, the bedroom set prominently featured a poster of the space shuttle, the reusable NASA spacecraft that first flew in 1981.

I noticed. I was that kid. In a way, I still am that kid.

I thought of “Super 8” a few days ago, during a trip to the Washington, D.C., area. I visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a Smithsonian museum in Chantilly, Va. Udvar-Hazy is an amazing place, a gigantic facility where visitors can look at aircraft like the Concorde and the Enola Gay.

Udvar-Hazy features the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. When I visited the space hangar, I nearly wept. At the center of that big room is the space shuttle Discovery, which flew 39 missions between 1984 and 2012.

Like the boy in “Super 8,” I was inspired by the space shuttle program when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s. The spacecraft’s design fascinated me, as did the notion of flying into space in a vessel that seemed roomier than the cramped capsules of the NASA program’s early days.

I’m still fascinated by the space program. It is a triumph of science and engineering, and the men and women of the astronaut corps are heros.

Yet I’m sad at what’s happening, these days, when it comes to space exploration. More precisely, I’m sad at what’s not happening.

Yes, the International Space Station is a marvel, and I envy zillionaires like Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth who paid the Russian government sizable fortunes for trips to the orbiting platform.

But the space station is reachable only via Russian spacecraft. At the moment, the U.S. operates no manned space program.

That’s a shame.

American space shuttles were used to assemble the space station, but the space shuttle program ended in 2011. That’s why I got to pay my little visit to the museum piece that is Discovery.

True, I’m a fan of Russia’s sturdy Soyuz space hardware. But events in Ukraine make clear that NASA can’t rely on Russia as a friendly partner in space. Russia has annexed Crimea, and U.S.-Russian relations haven’t been this tense since the Cold War.

I’m reminded of scenes from the 1984 film “2010,” the “2001” sequel in which Americans join a Soviet space mission to an American spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. During the expedition, U.S.-Soviet relations back home reach the boiling point, and the Americans have to evacuate the Soviet spaceship.

I know it sounds crazy, but I keep envisioning a similar scene unfolding aboard the International Space Station. It currently is staffed by three Russians cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one Japanese astronaut. What happens up there if U.S.-Russian relations get truly hostile? Does the crew split up?

It’s worth noting that the evacuation was invented for the movie version of “2010.” It doesn’t happen in the 1982 novel by science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, who depicted U.S.-Soviet relations that seem to have largely moved beyond Cold War tensions. Clarke was a great idealist that way, and I admire his vision of a peaceful future.

We don’t live in that peaceful future, though, and American space exploration hasn’t yet moved beyond the space shuttle.

Maybe space exploration is too expensive. Maybe, in a time of constrained budgets, the government shouldn’t be spending money on spaceships.

But let me tell you about something else I saw on my recent trip. A few days before I went to Udvar-Hazy, I visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the Washington Mall. Important artifacts from the U.S. space program are displayed there, including the Apollo 11 Command Module, which carried the first men who walked on the moon.

On a weekday afternoon in late winter, the place was packed. It was uncomfortably crowded. The museum was full of people who were hungry to learn about American space exploration. It was amazing to see.

People are still inspired by the space program.

I am too.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com.