Sunday, July 5, 2015

the privatisation of outer space

A review of Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Michael Rymer at the Los Angeles Review of Books

The strength of the book, Rymer says, is its focus not on the astronauts but the lower level  technicians, people like "orbiter integrity clerks"

"Omar [Izquierdo] and his father Francisco, who joined NASA at the inception of the shuttle program after graduating from engineering school in Puerto Rico, become the emotional fulcrum of Dean’s book. Their years of labor in the service of spaceflight have made them, if anything, more awestruck about the business of sending human beings into space. Dean asks Francisco how many space shuttle launches he has seen; he “pauses modestly for a moment” before answering that he has seen “all of them” — a total of 154 at that point.
It’s through these men that we feel most acutely what it means that, as Dean puts it, “we have been flying American spacecraft in space for fifty years and now have decided to stop.”...  Many of these workers have nowhere to go; certainly it seems unlikely that the private sector will absorb them. SpaceX, one of the private companies with which NASA has partnered in the new, post-shuttle era, doesn’t hold much promise for long-time space workers, who, Dean reports, are being overlooked because “the company doesn’t want workers who have been steeped in NASA culture” — a culture perceived as having a retrograde “extreme concern for safety.”.... 
.... Dean herself is skeptical about the new era of privatized spaceflight. “[G]etting to space as cheaply as possible with an emphasis on catering to paying customers only serves to rob spaceflight of the things I most love about it,” she writes, fretting that “the type of big, grand, daring spaceflight projects I’m interested in are, by definition, not good investments.” With private companies controlling spaceflight, she fears we’ll lose access to “everything — images, films, discoveries, crew chatter” that NASA has always made public. And if space travel becomes a “privilege of the incredibly wealthy,” children may no longer dream of becoming astronauts, losing “motivation to do their algebra homework or serve in the military, knowing that their only hope of earning a seat lies in getting rich.”

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