Up, Up and Away

Space Station Reaches
10 Years of Earth Watch

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Nothing like the sage of America’s formerly favorite pastime, Yogi Berra, to convey in a few words, a world of meaning. The International Space Station that completes today its first 10 years in orbit, for example, never became the home away from home its creators once envisioned. Ever since its first crew spent a few uncomfortable days in it, it got much better, but never quite the easy ride of the sci-fi stories. And, let’s face it, it never will.
Then again, perhaps we’re all better off knowing that the envisioned world of The Jetsons and even of Blade Runner was not meant to be. Imagine texting and driving a hyperspeed-flying car? Or sending an ultra intelligent robot to the past, to kill somebody else’s grandfather? And don’t even let us start with all those promised wonderful foods in a pill, and the dream of living in some far away outer world, as a slave of the state. Believe us, to imagine the future is no time to skim on the consequences of our revelry and we better make sure it’s one our kids still can have the wherewithal to be just what they really are, not assembly line versions of Big Brother.
But granted, life aboard a relatively high-tech metal box slightly bigger than a RV, traveling at 17,500mph in outer space, surrounded by thousands of supersonic man-made debris and heavens-sent errant rocks that can cause catastrophic damage at a moment’s notice, can’t be made too much better. But unlike one too many a nuclear head, from the get go, the ISS was also regarded as a flight of fancy of our space age silly dreams.
Even before its first stage was delivered to space by one of the shuttles belonging to the same 30-year fleet that’s about to be retired by NASA this year, without a viable replacement, the ISS had one crucial shortcoming: its astronomical costs killed the unit designed to generate artificial gravity. Again, believe us when we say, not a single day goes by when this decision doesn’t impact the life of the astronauts living up there, and we won’t need to go to the bathroom to elaborate on that one.
Not that any of the 200 or so born and bred heroes, as these superbeings appear to be, ever complained. Or about the many other little grievances that would probably make us beg to please let us out of the bus, if we had to endure them at 220 miles above the earth. Not the least of them the constant stomach queasiness, the liquid retention on the upper part of the body, or the extensive bone loss space travelers suffer. This is one of the two of the most serious issues, along with the threat of long-term radiation exposure, scientists are still grappling to solve in time for longer expeditions through the big void.
And then there’s the $100 billion price tag of such piece of machinery, increasingly hard to defend back on earth. Neither the stunning pictures taken from the station, nor the many scientific experiments that trickled down to our daily lives, such as voice-controlled wheelchairs, fire resistant materials and water-purification systems (all liquid body waste, for example, is recycled and reused at the ISS), are easy sells.
And the platoon of budget-vigilantes, who won’t hesitate signing on a multi-billion new weapon if that will benefit their friendly industries, is always ready to play that cynical but highly populist card, the “why are we spending so much money up there?” and the ever reliable, “we can’t afford to dream at this time.”
No one is more shocked for such a reductive view of managing the scientific future of a nation than the rocket scientists themselves, who can recreate a whole universe from scratch if it’d be needed, and are also known for being super-athletes, but never made to great politicians.
The ISS is slated to be decommissioned in 2020 but it may as well fly way beyond that. After the last shuttle lands for good on earth, the station will be serviced by the impossibly cranky Russian Soyuz capsule, which surely makes Vladimir Putin proud and pretty much no one else. Since the world is not getting any friendlier towards such lofty and expensive experiments, it’s very likely that once decommissioned, that will be it for our dreams of having a home among the stars.
But who knows? Maybe this too will all change. Once again, Berra comes to our rescue. Trying to explain an unreal coming from behind by the Yankees, he came up with a summation that far outlived the game it was meant to refer to: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

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