Monday, September 11, 2006

The Final Frontier

I'm a fan of the space program. Not a hardcore fan, maybe, not a self-made expert like some I've known. But, y'know, I watched Apollo 13 four or five times in theaters and the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon" and "The Right Stuff" and then I read some of the books that those are based on. And yesterday I picked up We Seven, purporting to be an account of the "most magnificent adventure of modern times, told by the heroes who achieved it" -- the Mercury astronauts.

And then there's all the science fiction dating back to the early days of the space program that I still love. When I bought the Mercury book, I also picked up Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham. "An international prize of over a million dollars was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Target -- Mars. [...] Dale Curtance of England didn't need the fortune. He was a millionaire. He was an eccentric. But most of all he was an adventurer and he was determined to win. [...] There were going to be many surprises. And they all began with the stowaway aboard Curtance's ship. A stowaway to Mars. A woman."

Who could resist that?

The great part about space travel is that it blurs the line between science fiction and reality. For instance, there is the X Prize Cup, which has already awarded a ten million dollar prize to a spacecraft developed by a billionaire. Now they plan to offer more prizes. And a British billionaire has joined forces with the American one to try to put the prize-winning craft to use.

And NASA really is planning to go to Mars, and back to the moon. The Constellation program borrows ideas from Apollo (and so resembles the science fiction of that era too) for the design of a vehicle versatile enough to handle both, supposedly, and dock with a space station too. Lockheed Martin got the contract. They're hiring in Colorado. My mom sent me an e-mail alert. But I don't really want to build it, so much as fly in it... Maybe I'll stow away.

Realistically, private space tourism is probably is the only way I'm ever going to get any kind of taste of space. Right now it's a little out of my price range, around $20 million to go up aboard a Russian Soyuz and an extra $15 million if you actually want to do a spacewalk. I'm saving up.

There is one other option. You can move to a small country and talk them into buying fighter planes from Russia, and hope the Russians throw a trip in to "sweeten the deal". That's how Malaysia's getting its first astronaut to space. Whoever it is will attempt to make Teh Tarik (pulled tea) in space. This will be a challenge because, normally, it involves pouring "boiling-hot milky tea swiftly and repeatedly from one vessel held high in one hand into another held low, producing a distinctive layer of froth."

If I ever go into space, I'm going to drink my national beverage: Diet Coke. I can think of all kinds of experiments to do with that. Shaking the can, ditching the can altogether, maybe even bringing along some Mentos.

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