Exploring Space through Writing: An Interview with Anna Leahy & Douglas Dechow

Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow are writers who focus mainly on science, space, and aviation. They write the Lofty Ambitions blog together and are working on a book about their experiences following the end of the US space shuttle program.



Photo courtesy of NASA, Wikimedia Commons


FWJ: When did you first decide to write about the ending of the US space shuttle program, and why?

Anna Leahy & Douglas Dechow: We had been writing together, on and off, for several years. Our first collaboration was a conference paper about aviation museums so that we could travel to Amsterdam, and that led to a book chapter and a journal article. In July 2010, we decided to start a blog focused on aviation and science. We committed to posting every Wednesday at Lofty Ambitions.

That summer, we were also paying attention in earnest to the impending end of the space shuttle program. We had been born in the mid-1960s, so US manned spaceflight had spanned our lifetimes and was set to end. We wanted to witness one of the last launches in person, so we made our way to Florida’s Space Coast for the first time in October 2010 to see Discovery. Our blog became a great way to start writing about the end of [the shuttle program].

A year earlier, when we had mentioned our interest in space exploration, a college friend had proclaimed that Apollo was the best thing this country ever did. When manned spaceflight comes up in conversation or the news — and it does — everyone has a memory or an opinion. That’s really what convinced us that the end of the US space shuttle program was worth writing from our perspective.

FWJ: The next question is two-fold. You mention that everyone has a memory or opinion about manned spaceflight. What are some of the most interesting perspectives you’ve encountered, and how did they affect your own thoughts about the space program?

AL & DD: A few years ago, at a party in casual conversation with a few friends who’d gone to Knox College with us, we mentioned what we were up to, that we planned to follow the end of the space shuttle program. A fellow writer burst out, “Apollo was the best thing this country ever did.” We knew then that ours wasn’t merely an individual interest and that something important was at stake.

Who of a certain age doesn’t remember the Moon landing? Doug’s first conscious memory is of watching the Moon landing on television. On July 20, 1969, he was a toddler whose mother thought that the event was important enough that he should see the grainy footage, the never-before footing. One of every six people in the world watched that broadcast.

When we talked to Anna’s mother about our project, she recalled an even earlier event: Alan Shepard’s fifteen-minute spaceflight in 1961. Mary Lee had been in a car accident, and doctors gathered in front of the television in her hospital room to watch the first American go to space. When we talked with former astronaut and current Director of Johnson Space Center, he remembered those first seven astronauts, chosen for the Mercury project when he was thirteen years old.

Of course, those of us now well into middle age remember the Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. The two of us were both in college then, and we remember where we watched the news unfold on communal television sets. When Challenger comes up in conversation, people want to remember and talk about it. That event became for our generation similar to what the Kennedy assassination had been to our parents’ generation: a coming of age, a facing of unexpected tragedy just as we were grappling with what adulthood might mean.

As the shuttle program was winding down in 2011, the reaction that we found most common was shock that the United States was going to be unable to launch people into space and astonishment that we were going to pay Russia — who had beaten us to space, whom we had beaten to the Moon — for seats in Soyuz capsules. Astronauts expressed this view, and so did strangers in a hospital waiting room when CNN ran a thirty-second story. People couldn’t believe we were giving up on human space flight. That utter dismay made us think about why we were pursuing this project and what the end of the shuttle program means to our identity as well as to science.

FWJ: You mention that the end of the shuttle program signifies something about our identity and about science. What exactly do you think the end of the program reveals?

AL & DD: Americans think of the United States as a spacefaring nation, and going to space is part of what we do. Anyone younger than fifty was born into the Space Age. NASA’s history is filled with larger-than-life personalities and stories that originate with the space race with the Russians, the Moon landing, and the space shuttle. Our popular culture remains suffused with images and ideas of space. The popular television show The Big Bang Theory featured a yearlong storyline that involved a character becoming a NASA astronaut and visiting the International Space Station. It was also just announced that the people behind the cable-TV hit Mad Men are looking at developing a show based on the journalists that covered the space race in the 1960s.

The continued interest in space and space travel reflects, in part, a belief in a twentieth-century holdover vision of America’s Manifest Destiny in space. Though the International Space Station reorients this vision and points toward global cooperation, Americans still believe that we should look — and go — to the heavens, to space, to understand our place in it. That vision doesn’t match the reality of the end of the shuttle program, an end that finds American astronauts hitching rides on Russian rockets. In fall 2010, we interviewed Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham, and he expressed the opinion that we had become too risk averse as a nation to fulfill what he thought NASA’s goal should be, Mars and beyond.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it another way when he discusses the meager size of NASA’s budget — just a half-penny on the tax dollar — in his popular book Space Chronicles: “It’s the entire portfolio of spending that defines a nation’s identity. I, for one, want to live in a nation that values dreaming as a dimension of that spending. Most, if not all, of those dreams spring from the premise that our discoveries will transform how we live.”

NASA’s dreams have transformed how we live, both in terms of spin-off technology like memory foam and MRI technology to the useful science that the space program enables. NASA does large-scale science that corporations aren’t willing to do, such as investigating climate change. NASA also carries out science in ways that corporations won’t, including making the data from experiments freely available to all of us. The 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, John C. Mather, says in Wings in Orbit, “[T]he most important scientific contribution of the Space Shuttle was that it kept the agency (NASA) alive after the Apollo Program.” If the primary reason that the public supports NASA is because it sends American astronauts to space, and if NASA is no longer performing that function, then science may suffer right along with our lofty notions of spacefaring.

FWJ: If space exploration was the twentieth-century version of Manifest Destiny, what do you think is the twenty-first century version of it? What do you think America’s new version of Manifest Destiny can yield that space exploration cannot? (And what longings can it not fulfill that space exploration could?)

AL & DD: Manifest Destiny is really a nineteenth-century concept; it smacks of conquering and empire. The space program, for a while, during the space race with the Russians at least, drew from this deeply ingrained concept that Americans held. NASA and the space shuttle, however, also shifted our ideas of what exploration means. Maps had changed by the end of the twentieth century, and we were moving away from that old notion that drove land acquisition and remaking others around the world in our image.

Now and then, one can still hear hints of the old rhetoric, but times have changed. Writer Pico Iyer recently visited our campus and said a version of what he’d said in an interview at the Wharton School: “Many people I know are always criticizing globalization, and corporations are easy to find fault with. But I think that companies, by shifting their product with each market, are actually making this a much more diverse world. When McDonald’s or Starbucks go to a hundred different countries, in each case the country takes that same formula and converts it into its own cultural context. For example, when I’m in Japan and I go to a local McDonald’s, they’re serving moon-viewing burgers in September at the time of the traditional East Asian harvest moon. When I go to McDonald’s in India, they’re serving chai and pizzas and mostly vegetarian dishes.” So the world reshapes us and “our” ideas and products in a complex interaction.

The International Space Station is a global effort and a symbol of global cooperation in exploring low-Earth orbit and the universe. That NASA shares its science and makes data available to scientists and others around the globe is another example of how we can and do work together. The United States and Russia remain leaders in space exploration, but there are a lot of other nations and entities involved now, reshaping the goals generally and ISS specifically — the largest ISS module is Kibo, built by the Japanese space agency JAXA — rather than being remade by American ideas and institutions.

We’d like to think Curiosity is the new way to think about exploration, that the goal of exploration is not about expansion of territory, as it was in the nineteenth century or during the space race, and that space exploration remains part of twenty-first century ambitions. By Curiosity, we mean inquisitiveness, the desire to learn and know, and we also mean the amazing Mars rover named Curiosity. Unmanned space exploration has long been part of space exploration, and probes, rovers, telescopes, and all sorts of technology have come a long way, in part because of space exploration. Though human space flight should and probably will be important in the future — as both a means and a goal — robotics and virtual exploration are already playing a big role in the twenty-first century and will probably continue to surprise us.

FWJ: You mentioned in your last response that space exploration has become more of a global endeavor for knowledge rather than a competition between nations for territorial expansion. Recently I’ve seen quite a few articles about Mars One, a project that aims to send volunteers on a one-way trip to Mars within the next 10 years in order to form a human settlement. What are your thoughts about this project? Do you think establishing an international community on Mars is the next big step in space exploration?

AL & DD: It’s been more than forty years since humans had their boots on the Moon. Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke suggests we establish a habitat on the Moon in order to help us figure out how to live long-term on another celestial body and how to get to Mars. Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham is concerned that the United States has become risk averse and is a big advocate of going straight to Mars with aggressive timelines.

The Mars rovers, currently Curiosity, are doing important science on the red planet and paving the way for informed human exploration there.

Mars One, however, is designed as a media event. It’s not so much a global effort as it is a private effort to develop a reality show. When we spoke with the mayor of Titusville, Florida, he was ready to take a one-way trip to Mars, and so are plenty of folks. We’d like to see a more serious effort with greater potential benefits and lower risks.

One of the most important reasons for us — the United States, NASA, private companies, other nations — to make serious efforts toward manned exploration of Mars is that it will generate all sorts of research. A Big Science project becomes more than the sum of its parts. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it this way in his book Space Chronicles: “If you double NASA’s budget, whole legions of students will fill the pipeline. Even if they don’t become aerospace engineers, we will have scientifically literate people coming up through the ranks — people who might invent stuff and create the foundations of tomorrow’s economy. […] We want the best biologists in the world. If there’s chemical warfare, we want the best chemists. And we would have them, because they’d be working on problems relating to Mars, problems relating to Europa. We would have attracted those people because the vision was in place.”

Going to Mars will be very hard. When we spoke with shuttle astronaut Michael Barratt, who holds an MD and researches effects of radiation on the human body, he indicated that, using current knowledge and technology, it’s iffy whether anyone could survive the trip to Mars because of the radiation exposure along the way. Solar events, alpha particles, and “the really high-energy cosmic rays” beyond Earth’s orbit are all forms of radiation, which, Barratt says, is “the major question mark—slash showstopper—for interplanetary travel.” Imagine what it would mean to all of us if scientists and engineers were working a lot harder on the problem of radiation exposure and limiting the dangerous effects. That research will happen if we foster a serious, concerted effort to put humans on Mars.

FWJ: Aside from generating research and innovation, what do you think would be the biggest gain from getting humans to Mars?

AL & DD: Both research and innovation provide justification enough for exploring Mars in person, especially when you take into account the new and unpredictable questions and possibilities that big projects like traveling to Mars inevitably involve.

In the 1960s, no one set out to create the Internet. A network called the Arponet was created to allow a handful of computers and the researchers who used them to talk with each other. That idea wasn’t intended for wide use, but the model proved so useful that it spread, forming the Internet we have today. No one set out to make the Internet, not at first. They set one technological goal and ended up creating new and unexpected possibilities.

In a practical sense, right now, we have a 14-minute delay each way between Earth and Mars. That means that JPL engineers give Curiosity, the rover exploring Mars, a command, and it takes 14 minutes to reach the rover. Once the rover executes a command, it takes 14 minutes for it to relay information back here. We have no ability to make split-second decisions. We have no ability to change our minds mid-task. Humans can explore in a different way than robots can.

If you talk with an Apollo astronaut about walking on the surface of the Moon or even making a spacewalk, he makes a good case, too, for the experience of a sentient human to represent the rest of us. If a human being experiences something, that journey becomes part of the human experience.

– Interview by Annie Bruckner, Media Assistant at Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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