This year, NASA plans to spend $16.79 billion, and the agency wants a 3.1 percent increase for 2008. Despite nearly $17 billion worth of astronauts, shuttles and space station maintenance, many people forget the news of scientific accomplishment in orbit and remember the humorous anecdotes that make it back from outer space.
Nobody would suggest that NASA is simply an extension of Hollywood, meant only to provide a reality show miles beyond the atmosphere. However, media coverage of space stories suggests that the entertainment aspects of space exploration are certainly a welcome bonus.
Take, for example, this article, written by Mike Schneider for the Associated Press. We learn nothing about the scientific experiments that Sunita Williams might be performing aboard the International Space Station. Instead, we learn that while she was trying to assemble prepackaged sushi, she spilled her wasabi. Now, Japanese horseradish is potent stuff, and I shiver at the thought of floating green blobs that might sneak behind my spectacles and spice up my eyesight. The story called to mind the ubiquitous scene from space flight videos in which astronauts send chocolate candies flying and pluck them from midair with their mouths. Hardly scientific, but surely fun to watch.
Later in the article, we get descriptions of what Williams and her colleague brought along in their special food boxes. Williams’ punjabi kadhi and pakora — yogurt and curry atop vegetable fritters — and Michael Lopez-Alegria’s Spanish muffins called magdalenas, chorizo pork sausage and latte are enough to tempt you to make a reservation for lunch at the space station! You might even come back for dinner once you see the menu Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray are preparing for an out-of-this-world debut.
It might not be the food that’s luring them, but non-astronauts are now making the journey into space for the first time. Former Microsoft entrepreneur Charles Simonyi is scheduled to “break atmo” in April aboard a Russian shuttle en route to the International Space Station, where he plans to assist with biomedical experiments. He will be the fifth paying passenger into space. Simonyi has a web site designed to share his experience with children and teach them about space flight. Simonyi is turning his spaceflight to educational purposes, but Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that facilitated his flight, also offers to help potential customers leverage their space flight into publicity for a charitable cause.
Publicity has been a mixed blessing for NASA this year: the story of astronaut Lisa Nowak has captivated media outlets with the taste of scandal. Even as more details unfold around this incident, nearly every story returns to the most trivial yet most sensational detail: the adult diaper worn by Nowak as she drove to the confrontation with her apparent romantic rival. I expected the diaper to fade into last-week’s-news as intercepted e-mails came to light and Nowak officially lost her NASA appointment, but no, the diaper just keeps coming back. For all the newscasters’ level voices and the calmly factual sentences in newspapers, does anyone doubt that everyone is giggling behind their hands?
Thanks to the media, we have found heroes in the men and women who brave the next unknown to travel beyond our atmosphere, coming home in glory or – twice in our lifetimes – dying with honor. Whether our heroes in spacesuits are taking on new passengers, fueling scandal, or spilling spicy condiments, we listen eagerly. Our media outlets carry their stories to all corners of the country via newspaper trucks, television signals, or the flashing photons of the Internet, allowing us the unity of shared storytelling despite geographic distance. Stories of brave explorers have captured the imagination for centuries, and we are currently witnessing the stories that will be legendary centuries from now. That just might be worth $17 billion.