Saturday, November 16, 2013

In Space, No One Can Hear You Clean

I was a child of the space age. Sputnik went up when I was a two years old, and I was six when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. I eagerly followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and I remember the thrill of watching Neil Armstrong make his "one small step for man." Like most kids from my era, more than anything else I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

Space Boy, circa 1959

Science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where terrible things happened in space, didn't scare me because that was science fiction. Even real-life disasters like the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle didn't discourage me. I knew that some day, I would have the opportunity to go into space—to be a Rocket Man, like the guy in the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song (though hopefully not as lonely).

Then I saw Gravity.

If there is a piece of debris on the road—the tiniest piece of debris—I am sure to hit it. That's just the kind of luck I have. The worst case scenario when you hit the tiniest piece of debris on the road is that you end up with a flat tire. Now, thanks to Gravity, I know what the worst case—or, in fact, the any case—scenario is when you hit the tiniest piece of debris (or the tiniest piece of debris hits you) in space.

You die.

Astrophysicist (and second coolest "Neil Something Something" after Patrick Harris) Neil deGrasse Tyson found plenty of flaws in Gravity, but one of the things he thought the film got right was the danger of orbiting space debris. According to Wikipedia, NASA is currently tracking "about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm...with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude."

Computer-generated image of stuff orbiting our planet, approximately 95% of which is debris. (Wikipedia)

After seeing Gravity, you couldn't pay me to go into space—at least not until somebody goes up there and does some cleaning. And why don't we? We have scores of brilliant people working in the field of space exploration, and probably just as many equally brilliant people working in the field of cleaning. (Okay, I can think of two: Heloise and that Dyson vacuum cleaner guy.) Surely, they can put their heads together and come up with a solution.

Then, and only then, will I dream once more of becoming a Rocket Man.

And I think it's gonna be a long, long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no, I'm a rocket man
Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone*
—Bernie Taupin

*Until I looked up the lyrics for this post, I never knew what that last line actually was. "Burning off his face, I'll never know?" "Burning all the things I've ever known?" I have a similar problem with the lyrics of other Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs. For years, I thought that Daniel was "a star in the felt of the sky," that Yellow Brick Road was "where the dogs are society's hounds," and that Benny, of Benny and the Jets, had "electric boobs."

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