The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked at the Russian space station Mir on June 29, 1995, forming the then largest man-made satellite to orbit Earth and launching what NASA chief Daniel Goldin described as “a new era of friendship and cooperation.” The International Space Station was in operation by 2000, providing a base for astronauts and cosmonauts from fifteen different nations, who have conducted experiments across a wide scientific spectrum. Despite the recent, Ukraine-inspired cooling of their partnership, NASA and RKA (the Russian Space Agency) say that they are discussing plans for a joint venture to Mars — the scientific presence there also tied to this week, the U.S. Pathfinder spacecraft having landed Sojourner, the first Mars rover, on July 4, 1997.
The current hiatus in America’s manned space flight program — astronauts must book a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (at $62.7 million for the round trip) or wait for the commercial spacecraft companies to begin operations — is troubling, says Claude A. Piantdadosi in Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science and Future of Human Space Exploration:
The shuttle was expensive, undependable, and overdue for the museum when the program ended, but we have no consensus on what’s next for America’s manned spaceflight program. . . . The situation is unprecedented. America has been the unquestioned leader in space since Project Apollo, but today we seem indifferent, at best, about our space program. In a world of virtual worlds, we can explore everything under the sun without ever leaving our Web browser, but cyberspace offers only what someone, someplace already knows — nothing more. The discovery of the unknown is the purpose of science, and therein lies real excitement.
Piantadosi’s book explores the feasibility of boldly going ever farther — past Mars, Ceres and “The Moons of the Ice Giants” (Uranus and Neptune) to galaxies reachable only by hibernating robots or the “programming of ‘beings’ into trillions of ‘hardened’ spores and disseminating them into space to germinate when conditions are right.”
Those who have actually traveled in space tend to write books that look back at their own planet and their relationship to it. Like Ron Garan’s The Orbital Perspective, Chris Hatfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth emphasizes that, scientific experiments aside, the true value of a space program lies in how it affects the agenda here on earth:
More than 500 people have had the opportunity to see our planet from afar, and for mot of them, the experience seems to have either reinforced or induced humility. The shimmering, dancing show of the northern and southern lights; the gorgeous blues of the shallow reefs fanning out around the Bahamas; the huge, angry froth stirred up around the focused eye of a hurricane — seeing the whole world shifts your perspective radically. It’s not only awe-inspiring but profoundly humbling. . . . This is not to say that space travel has made me feel irrelevant. In fact, it’s made me feel I have a personal obligation to be a good steward of our planet and to educate others about what’s happening to it.
Subtitled What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, Hatfield’s book has a range of earthling-friendly advice and ordinary-human detail — his last days aboard Atlantis, for example, included “taking photos of crewmates in bizarre, only-in-space poses and, just because you can, peeing upside down.” Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars also offers practical advice on many of the more human challenges of prolonged cosmic travel. Intimacy, for example: “What the biologists observed confirmed what I had suspected: that when it comes to sexual intercourse, gravity is your friend.”