Do You Hear What I Hear? Let it Not be MAD, but Money

This little story in the Atlantic has been haunting me for days:

When Bing Crosby or Robert Goulet or Carrie Underwood sing of “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” it evokes the biblical Star of Bethlehem, leading the magi to the son of God.

It also evokes a nuclear missile.

The song’s writers, Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, created the song at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in fear of nuclear annihilation. Try listening to the song now that you know that.

The story reminds me of when I first got a gut understanding of how rockets got their start. When I was a lawyer with the Federal Aviation Administration, I worked for decades on commercial space transportation.  The Commercial Space Launch Act called rockets “launch vehicles,” so I did, too. Launch vehicles are a means of transport for nice things like communications satellites and weather satellites. They have nice payloads.

There was a fellow in the licensing division of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. He was former U.S. Air Force, and he usually called the vehicles rockets or launch vehicles like the rest of us. I’d been at the FAA a while when I first heard him call them “missiles.” The hair on the back of my neck went straight up.

I don’t know why it did that, but I have my suspicions.  I’d grown up under MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and I remember a ferocious discussion of it with other girls in gym class in high school in the ‘70’s. I knew all about intercontinental ballistic missiles, and I knew what nuclear winter was, what ICBMs were. But here was this fellow who’d worked on launch vehicles that didn’t have nice, friendly comsats as payloads. His launch vehicles had different payloads. They had warheads, the kind I’d worried about in my youth, before Reagan, before the Berlin Wall went down, and before I stopped worrying.

When I wrote The Sky Suspended, a novel about an interstellar starship that discovers an Earth-like planet, I knew how fiendishly expensive and difficult space travel is. We hadn’t even returned to the Moon yet, after all. People came to the FAA with really cool plans, and then we didn’t see them again. Geostationary orbit is the farthest we get commercially, dreams of asteroid mining notwithstanding. Knowing all this, I had a credibility issue with what could lead to us spending all that money on a starship. Deep in the back of my brain I knew we’d have to be really, really scared. So, asteroids threatened the Earth, two of them, and math happened.

I’ve worried from time to time that our drive to space grew out of fear, that we yearned for space only because we needed a backup drive for Earth and because we were afraid. Once the children of MAD went where the elves go, humanity would turn inward and dive into its video games, never to surface above Earth’s atmosphere again. The machines would. You need those for video games. But those of us of flesh and bone? We’d stay put.

What heartens me, however, is what I’ve been seeing lately from people younger than me: the children at the New World Institute showing off their lunar and Martian cities, the number of law students and 20-somethings interested in space law. I attribute this to a different factor than fear. They aren’t afraid, but they’re starting to think they can go, that there are whole new worlds out there again, and they might be there for them, not just a handful of government employees. I wish I could attribute it to science fiction (since I love it so), but it’s something else: it’s commercialization, and when some see profit and dollars and rewards for their quixotic, romantic, and heroic efforts, the rest of us benefit, for it means the rest of us can participate, not just the government. Those capitalists want us to give them our money. And we’ll do it if they give us something we want.

When I first started at the FAA, I got to see an Atlas IIAS launch. It was around 2 a.m., and the whole sky turned bright as day, but orange. I was two miles from the rocket, and still my bones vibrated at the sound of it, and tears came to my eyes at the beauty of it.

I want to see that tail as big as a kite again, but I don’t want to see it on a missile. I want to see it on a launch vehicle.

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