November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
May 13,1992: The first two failures looked weirdly dopey: spacesuits evoke swaddling clothes, making the astronauts resemble giant infants, and the painfully slow, seemingly awkward movements of men in zero-g conveyed the sense of graceless clowns. A man touching a gigantic weightless mass with a hair too much force and setting it spinning hopelessly had the cruelly farcical logic of slapstick: Abbott and Costello go to the moon. After the seven-million-dollar “capture bar” screwed up—it looked like a giant Rube Goldberg tire iron—the dreary certainty settled in that the shuttle crew would fail for the third and final time to recapture the satellite; another hundred million bucks down the rathole.
You could foresee the grandiloquently named Endeavour exhausting its fuel in futile maneuvers as ludicrous as the men’s fumbling with the satellite, after which the shuttle would slink ignominiously home. On the tail of the LA riots and the smug and sometimes gleeful foreign commentary, there was a nasty prevision of more of the same. There was a surly sense that we’re no longer even the uncultured brutes who can work technological magic; we’ve lost our hole card, and at the end of what was supposed to be the American century we’re an international joke.
While the astronauts moved, as if through molasses, an unprepossessing fellow—he was a science reporter for a magazine—explained three things that could go wrong: An astronaut could tear his glove on a sharp metal object never meant to be handled by a man, and die in seconds. Or the satellite that seemed weightless and motionless but which in fact massed four tons and was moving at seventeen thousand miles an hour would smash two or three astronauts to jelly against the shuttle. Or the satellite would nudge the shuttle hard enough to do real damage, making it impossible for it to reenter the atmosphere, and the astronauts would all die slowly. The NASA official was asked to comment on the science reporter’s assessment: yep, he said, the journalist seemed to have it right.
The three men in what no longer looked like swaddling clothes moved in the slow motion that no longer seemed clownish and tried to simultaneously grab hold of the satellite while perched on an object they’d cobbled together that morning, a real Rube Goldberg device, insofar as the machines Americans devised in their garages in the forties to do things like sweep the mines off a Normandy beach were Rube Goldberg devices. The science reporter explained that the satellite was pitching as well as rotating, which is when you began to sense that the men who would probably laboriously fail at what had somehow seemed a trivial and effortless task were in fact doing something not only dangerous but very difficult, in a place where the laws of physics unfairly contrived to make a harsh and lethal environment look like a cartoon world, and that this effect was in fact a backhanded and subtle compliment to the ingenuity and daring that had gotten these people to a point two hundred and twenty-five miles above our heads.
Within a few hours of the astronauts’ success, the CNN reporters seemed to have that dumb jingo tone in their voices that can make you not care too much about NASA; but on the network news an hour after that the anchor sounded very bored indeed, tagging his science correspondent’s excited chatter with a drawling, and patently insincere, “that certainly is fascinating.” This perversely served to remind you that it was. It was then that I thought, neither creditably nor, I believe, inaccurately, that in countries where they enjoy making fun of us, they’re probably not doing it just at this moment.
And here’s what I think now: Two outcomes are probable. People will continue to build spaceships, in which case when the torch passes to the Chinese or the Brazilians or whomever, they’ll find NASA about as risible as Americans now find Vasco da Gama or Magellan. Or no one will build spaceships, in which case the tatty sixties architecture in Florida and Texas will be as sadly and grandly redolent of the fragile best in men and women as is the detritus of Elizabethan London or Periclean Athens. Either way, NASA probably looks sillier now than it ever will again.