Oct 11 2013 9:00am

What the Astronaut Said

My mother’s classroom is a happily crowded place. The walls and countertops are crammed with museum posters, maps of the solar system, scientific curios—everything you could want in an astrobiology class. Public school budgets being what they are, her lab tables are often overfull, holding as many students as the room can fit. One day, a few months back, her room was even more jam-packed than usual. Every spare seat and patch of lean-able wall space was occupied by administrators, district representatives, and myself, lucky enough to be in town.

We were there to see the astronaut.

She wore her flight suit, royal blue with bold patches. She talked to the kids about all she had done to be able to wear that suit, and about the physical challenges of life in space. She was enthusiastic and approachable, and I found myself mirroring the students, leaning forward, hanging on every word.

In the minutes before the bell rang, the kids swarmed the astronaut for photos, trading their phones back and forth. My mom made her way over to me. “You want to say hi?” she asked.

“She’s kind of mobbed right now,” I said. “I don’t want to get in the way.”

“Oh, come on,” my mom scoffed, leading me over. “How often do you get to meet an astronaut?”

She waited for an opening among the photo-snapping kids, and got the astronaut’s attention. “This is my daughter,” my mom said. I shook the astronaut’s hand. “She writes science fiction.”

And just like that, I wanted to disappear.

The astronaut smiled. “Oh, cool,” she said.

I could feel my cheeks flush. I gave my head a little shake. “Not like what you do,” I said. Because it’s true, I do write science fiction, but I have no published proof of that yet. And even if I had been standing there with book in hand, or ten books, even, how could that ever compare? The woman I was shaking hands with had been through the NASA training gauntlet. She had a PhD. She flew fighter jets. She would go to space one day. Me, I make up stuff about aliens and talking computers. It was a joke compared to her.

But the astronaut looked between me and my mom, and she said, “What you guys do gets us up there.”

I had no idea what to say at the time, beyond a humbled “thank you,” but I’ve thought a lot about her words since. In the days after, I thought about the work I want to do, and why. Long after the fact, I thought about the cultural importance of that comment being made within a group of three women, all representing fields that have not, historically, been welcoming to people like us (particularly in the case of the astronaut, a woman of color). But the thing that’s stuck with me most is that those words were said by an astronaut who hasn’t been in space yet. She still hasn’t. With the Shuttles grounded, she’s waiting, along with her peers, for an opportunity to hitch a Soyuz ride. Date to be determined.

The face of space exploration is changing, particularly in the US. Those of us born post-Space Race are finding ourselves reflecting on what a presence in space means to our generation. We’ve swallowed the bitter pill of realizing that all those “giant leaps” we did grade school projects about were largely funded as technological posturing, with science as a side bonus. Many of us wonder if (and hope that) our space program can survive solely on the merits that were once pretense—knowledge, exploration, and the good of our species.

Redefinition is always an uphill struggle, and there are few places where that is more evident than in ongoing discussions about space. NASA’s future is uncertain, with funding ever shrinking, and a lot of soul-searching going on behind the scenes. The slack is being picked up by the private sector, with bright new ideas catching fire. Space tourism. Asteroid mining. Crowdfunded orbital telescopes. This is uncharted territory, and in the years ahead, we need to continue asking hard questions about where these paths might take us.

It doesn’t matter whether you come down on the side of manned exploration or unmanned, of government funding or private investments—or if, like me, you think there’s room at the table for everyone. The fact is that if space exploration—in whatever form—is going to continue onward, it needs all the support we can muster. We need public outreach, like what the astronaut was doing, to be aware of the work that’s already being done, and to spark the next generation to follow in their footsteps. We need quality education, and a larger emphasis on scientific literacy, both in the classroom and beyond.

And we need science fiction. Now, more than ever.

We need to consider which futures are worth pursuing, which ideas we’ve outgrown, and what dangers (both practical and ethical) could be lurking along the way. Science fiction is the great thought experiment that addresses all of these things, and there is no branch of it that is not hugely relevant today. We need stories based around existing technologies, to help us determine our immediate actions. We need near-future stories that explore where our efforts might lead us in our lifetime. We need stories that take the long view, encouraging us to invest in better futures for distant generations. We need space operas, to remind us to be daring. We need apocalypses, to remind us to be cautious. We need realistic stories, and ridiculous stories, and everything in between, because all of these encourage us to dream (perhaps the ridiculous ones most especially). We need all of it. Every failed draft, every bestselling novel, every Saturday afternoon popcorn movie. So long as we are keeping these ideas afloat in the public consciousness, every offering counts, no matter how small.

Those needs aren’t just about inspiring scientists and explorers. Those of us watching from the periphery need to think about why their work is important, and why we should throw our weight behind it. Public enthusiasm for space exploration is still alive, but it’s fragile, and it won’t be helped along if we don’t look past the narrow view of our present circumstances. From a human standpoint, space has only ever been the realm of society’s upper echelons—the military elite, the intellectual elite, and now, the affluent elite—but it belongs to all of us. That’s a hard thing to see, though, if we focus only on the here and now. We have to keep telling the stories that drive us to make steps forward. Maybe those steps aren’t for us. Maybe they’re not for our kids, or even our kids’ kids. But if we keep moving, some of those futures we’ve imagined might one day become reality. It’s possible. Truly, it is.

Like the astronaut said, we just have to keep getting them up there.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer. She does weekly video game stuff for The Mary Sue, as well as essays here and there. Come say hello on Twitter.

Holley Mayville
1. hwmayville
That was both totally worth saying and very well-said. Thank you, Becky.
Sky Thibedeau
2. SkylarkThibedeau
The lady was indeed fortunate to be an astronaut as the civil rights community from the very beginning (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) thought that the funds allocated for space exploration would be better spent on programs for social justice. See Moondoogle.
3. theFinalFrontier
@2 - random line from the Killers that gets me everytime - "Spaceman says 'everybody look down, it's all in your mind'"

Those who have been fortunate enough to escape the bounds of Earth realize how insignificant our struggles can be, space is too big, life is too short and fragile.

Space, not only the final frontier, but the great equalizer?
4. Jonellin Stonebreaker
Wonderful comment Becky, and so true. There's a reason the first shuttle was named Enterprise.
Rather trollish comment, SkylarkThibedeau@2. Read your history and get back to us.
anudeep ravi
5. adeepu9
wonderful article.
who was the astronaut?
6. RonRicoRum
Science Fiction. Astronauts. Space. Yes!

Great commentary.

For what its worth, space exploration has always been and continues to be a public/private partnership. The current debate is more of a New Space vs Old Space debate, though there is some question of who should be leading the human spaceflight effort in Low Earth Orbit that has been ongoing.
7. Tehanu
I'm 65 years old, I've been reading science fiction my whole life, and this is the best statement I've ever read about why people should read it. Becky, you're a real writer. That is not faint praise. Thank you.
John Adams
8. JohnArkansawyer
@2: You understate the case. The country as a whole was not supportive of the Apollo program: "Americans might not have supported the space program in real life but they loved the one they saw on TV."

As Amitai Etzioni is quoted in the linked article, "The space budget was increased in the five years that followed by more than tenfold while the total American expenditure on research and development did not even double. Of every three dollars spent on research and development in the United States in 1963, one went for defense, one for space, and the remaining one for all other research purposes, including private industry and medical research." At its peak, we spent twice as much Federal money in a year on Apollo as we did in any of the past forty years on energy spending. It's a bit disproportionate, don't you think?

I don't dispute the benefits of the space program, but few of those came from the moon landing per se. If we'd spent that kind of money in some other scientific endeavor, we'd've seen significant benefits there, too. More benefits or fewer? Who knows?

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