restricted access Chapter 3. The Trip
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33 CHAPTER 3 THE TRIP Customers in space! The time is ripe, the field clear—not countingtheInternationalSpaceStation,awearyfixture that conjures images of, well, nothing, unless it’s that shot of Thelma and Louise’s car frozen over the gorge. So the spotlight has turned to the private sector, to an ambitious few straining to reclaim space in the name of the people. They themselves are not the people. They are titans of commerce like Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. And why not? If we had ever stood onstage swinging Kate Moss in our arms till she nearly came out of her dress (Branson), if Robert Downey Jr. had ever used us as a model for Iron Man (Musk), if we, like Bezos, simply groaned to consume, what would be left to us? Where else to reach but up? With a few smaller companies frisking at the margins, there hasn’t been such a sense of wild possibility since 1638 34 ✴ THE TRIP when the Bishop of Hereford sent Domingo Gonsales to the moon lashed to forty swans. Yet putting members of the public in space, projected to be difficult, is proving even more difficult than that. Target dates have been pushed back and back. In part that’s because there can be no mistakes, and Branson’s grand goal of sending a party of A-listers on a 2 ½-hour Mach 3 thrill ride— Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie and others have signed on—has only added to the pressure. No matter how much dark gratification millions will receive if a spaceship full of celebrities explodes, it would be bad for the company. “NASA has lost about 3% [of its astronauts],” Branson said. “. . . For a government -owned company, you can just about get away with losing 3% of your clients. For a private company you can’t really lose anybody.” This got me wondering if on launch days the prayers for success might get a last quarter turn: if there were superstitions attached to spaceflight, things to do for luck. I found that there are. So for example, if Tom Hanks et al. were to emulate Russian cosmonauts, they would urinate on the right rear tire of the vehicle that carries them to the launch pad or, via NASA, they might play blackjack with the tech crew before boarding the flight and ground control would eat peanuts. But I wander from my purpose. The concern of this book lies not with the immediate future but well beyond it, when paying customers are routinely orbiting the Earth like Pope Brock ✴ 35 loose laundry and it’s nearing time for the first lunar colonists to embark. The initial challenge will be deciding who gets to go. The details of that process we can’t foresee, but there are one or two things we do know. We know, for instance, that there will be more qualified candidates than experts once believed . Back in the 1950s some scientists thought only acrobats would ever go into space. Or contortionists. Or with luck “very small people.” Then someone suggested females: “Women could probably weather long periods of loneliness better,” a psychologist explained, “because they are more content to while away the hours dwelling on trivia.” Or as Professor Harold Pepinsky of Ohio State University comprehensively put it, the ideal astronaut might well be “a female midget with a PhD in physics.” By contrast, screeners of tomorrow will face a huge applicant pool. They may even be under siege from candidates animated by the principle that it’s better to break up with Earth before Earth breaks up with you. In such a press of volunteers , Job One will be weeding out the screwballs. For as former astronaut James Reilly has pointed out, once we start sending non-professionals into space, “We stand a greater chance of someone getting a little nuts.” To learn how this winnowing might be done, I contacted Dr. Patricia Santy, former head of psychiatric selection criteria at NASA, and asked her. 36 ✴ THE TRIP “I wish there were really good psychological tests,” Dr. Santy said, “but there aren’t.” Given that over the years candidate astronauts have been put through everything from the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory to the Minicog Rapid Assessment Battery, that they’ve had to Draw-a-Person, give twenty different answers to the question, Who Am I?, and on and on, her reply took me aback. But Dr. Santy explained...


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