Ungrounded

Threat to Our Dream
of Living Among Stars

In the concert of nations, Russia holds little sway. That is, if one discounts its nuclear stocks and storied past as a fierce competitor with world power credentials, its influence is now mostly regional. That’s not how President Vladimir Putin sees it, though.
So, despite all the hyperventilation about its imperialistic moves against its neighbors, which it never really ceased to control, and the phony indignation displayed by U.S. and Europe, the world doesn’t really care much about it. Except when it comes to space.
Specially, in what the International Space Station, that marvel of global scientific cooperation, is concerned. Aloft for over 10 years, with a steady stream of technological achievements to boot, the flying lab has done more to world harmony that many a peace talk ever could.
That positive outlook is what has been seriously challenged this week when the Russian president issued a not-so veiled threat to bar the launch of American satellites by Russian-made rockets, and even ban the use of the station itself by the U.S. after 2020, which, to be sure, is a qualified ruse.
The ISS hasn’t been projected to be fully operational much beyond that date anyway, and only recently its decommission got a reprieve, as the bitter reality that it’s been reduced to become the only game in town, or rather, space, has sunk in for nations still interested in exploring it, including the U.S.
Which is also at fault in the whole thing, for the record, and not for trying to upset Putin’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine next door. But because the U.S. has withdrawn much of that once unwavering support to its own space program since the last Shuttle left the assembly line.

WORLD, WE’VE HAD A PROBLEM HERE
After the great conquests of the 1960s and 70s, NASA, the agency in charge of firing up the imagination of Americans still starstruck, has frankly come up with mediocre plans to follow up the Apollo, the Hubble, the Shuttle programs, and even the ISS, of which it was a crucial contributor.
Instead, lacking the funding and epic ideas needed to go ‘to infinity and beyond,’ to use Buzz Lightyear credo (if you have to ask…), after folding the Shuttle program, NASA decided to count on the aging and unreliable Russian Soyuz rockets, to lift its ambitions to orbit. It couldn’t couldn’t work.
Why? Haven’t you noticed where they all land, and eventually depart from? You’re right, Ukraine. That in itself granted Putin a free ride, and power over the aspirations of millions of Americans who wished we still had a first class ticket towards the future.
The space card was bound to be played also when a misguided bet was placed on the market’s ability to carry our dreams aloft, on board
commercial enterprises. For they always come with the hard core conditions of ‘revenue streams,’ the pragmatic cargo profitability factors, and shareholders’ focus on the bottom line.
At the end of the day, for any space program to give back the kind of long-lasting dividends the race to the Moon has given us, it has to be sustained by public funding, the same way education, public health, and infrastructure works are. Private corporations will always place immediate profit ahead of long-term possibility.
So, chances are that the crew of three astronauts from Expedition 39, who landed safe and sound Tuesday in Kazakhstan, won’t be followed by a new one any time soon, at least until things in Ukraine, Crimea and whatever other nearby region Putin is thinking about putting on fire, calm the hell down.

BUT WILL WE EVER GO BACK?
Which is, let’s face it, pitiful. After spending six months in space, the least we could’ve told Koichi Wakata, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Rick Mastracchio, of NASA, and Mikhail Tyurin, of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, would be to please, take a shower and get ready for more.
But we won’t, even if there’s another crew already warming up for the next mission. At this point, we’re all on pins and needles, wondering whether they’ll get to go, or will be sitting this one, and the next, and the next one out, while we, well, try to have peace on Earth, for a change.
It won’t happen, most likely, not the way it’s supposed to be. Even if one believes that we may have our differences and argue a lot, and there are insurmountable woes to deal with on the ground, but when it comes to the big, overarching goals of mankind, we should be all for it, no question, for we still want a future.
There’s another crew, getting ready for a planned one-way trip to Mars. And the idea of retrieving an asteroid and see if we can learn how to divert it, just in case a big rock heads our way, with a nasty declaration of our extinction by fire. And there are many other ideas, we’re sure.
Whether they’ll ever, literally, take off, though, is another story. At this point, we wonder whether this couldn’t be the issue to derail Putin’s hegemonic prestige among Russians. After all, they too had a dream to fly up high and live in the stars, just like we did, or thought we did, one day, long ago.
DON’T THEY LOVE THEIR CHILDREN TOO?
So maybe we could go on a limb, here, and opt to believe that not even a moody and unpredictable leader such as the former KGB chief would want to mess with deep-seated desires of his people. And that his threat to slam the door of the Space Station to those he doesn’t like, is just his playing for the bleaches.
Perhaps it’s just an attempt to get the U.S. off its high horse and phony righteousness – we all know it’s all about gas and oil and all those miserable commodities, anyway – and once that happens, we’ll be all allowed to dream of reaching for the galaxies again. Not that we’d bet a discarded fuel tank on it, though.
Nevertheless, we can’t abdicate of our right to be naive and believe a thing or two about the will of the people. After all, even the celebrated space race was about weapons at first, and it would’ve remained so, if it was up to governments and rulers and the Cold War and deranged thoughts of world domination.
Except that there were enough visionaries from its onset, who chose to make it all about something else entirely. And once we saw the world from above, through their eyes, we chose that too. It stopped being a race and it became a bridge to another day of our species, this time outfitted to live out there.
This can’t be it, we say. Neither Putin, nor anyone else can get in the way of such an enormous dream-maker engine, such an incandescent spark to excel, such a transcendental counterpart to that other side of our nature, the one nature itself can’t wait to get rid of, so the planet can survive.
If the U.S., with all its might, is riding its whole space program on the coat tails of the once powerful, now just plain antiquated, Russian rockets, we may as well ride on a constellation of fireflies, if necessary, so to prove that we belong as much out there, floating, as down here, (deep) dreaming.
_________
Read Also:
* Space Odor
* Up, Up and Away
* The Last Apollo
* The Red Chronicles

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