The Broken Beyond: How Space Turned Into an Office Park

All the exciting parts of exploring the solar system have been leeched out. What’s left is the drudgery of the everyday and the dreams of the rich.

The Shuttle and its escort fly over traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, 2012.
The Shuttle and its escort fly over traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, 2012. (Fred Prouser / Reuters)

I am a Space Shuttle child. I ogled big exploded-view posters of the spaceship in classrooms. I built models of it out of plastic and assembled gliders in its shape out of foam. I sat silent with my classmates watching the television news on a VCR cart after Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. Six years later, I worked as an instructor at the New Mexico Museum of Space History’s summer “Shuttle Camp,” a name that will soon seem retrograde if it doesn't already.

Last summer the last Space Shuttle took its last space flight, but last week it took its last worldly one. It ended my generation’s era of space marvel, which turned out to take a very different path from that of our parents. During the 1950s and 1960s, space exploration was primarily a proxy for geopolitical combat. It was largely symbolic, even if set against a background of earnest frontiersmanship. First satellite, first man in space, first spacewalk, first manned moon mission, and so on. Space as a frontier was a thing for science fiction fantasy, although we dipped our toes far enough across that border to make it clear that such exploration was possible, even if not yet feasible.

Skylab (NASA)
By the 1970s, space had become a laboratory rather than a frontier. Despite its status as “space station,” Skylab was first called Orbital Workshop, making it sound more like dad’s vision for his garage than like Kubrik’s vision of 2001. The fact that Skylab was permanently disfigured during launch only concretized the program’s ennui. Space exploration became self-referential: Missions were sent to SkyLab in order to repair SkyLab.

The Space Shuttle turned the workaday space lab into a suburban delivery and odd-jobs service. Satellites were deployed, space labs serviced, probes released, crystals grown. Meanwhile, the aspects of space travel that really interest people—such as the fact that it’s travel in motherfucking outer space—were downplayed or eliminated.

For one of our Shuttle Camp classroom gimmicks, we’d have a kid hold a real high-temperature reusable surface insulation tile, one of the 20,000 such tiles that line the orbiter’s underbelly to facilitate reentry. After finishing her freeze-dried space spaghetti and Tang, this unassuming third-grader would clasp at the edges of the impossibly light tile, which seemed like little more than styrofoam. We’d heat its surface with a propane torch until it glowed red with heat and hazard, only to dissipate a few moments later. The danger was real, and the kids knew it. A decade later, a chunk of foam insulation would break free of Columbia's external fuel tank on launch and damage part of this thermal protection system, dooming the orbiter to destruction.

The very idea of a reusable space vehicle is contrary to everything that space travel had previously represented—wealth and power for one, but also enormity and smallness and risk and brazenness and uncertainty and dark, dark darkness—expedition rather than experimentation. It’s no wonder the space spaghetti and the thermal protection tiles were so interesting to those kids. They represented the experience of space (the frontier) rather than its taming as laboratory (the settlement). Look at the Saturn V. It's a badass rocket. Now look at the Space Shuttle. It's a humble tractor.

Saturn V (left), Shuttle (right). (NASA)

Last summer the Shuttle retired. Last week it began its funeral procession. Endeavour meandered around California on a tour of its monumuents. Awkward like a big RV, Endeavour was hoisted atop its Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified version of the Boeing 747-100, a once miraculous jumbo jet that's itself reached middle age. It was like watching an adult man taking an elderly father on a final tour: the Golden Gate, the State Capitol, the Hollywood sign. To mount Endeavour to the SCA, NASA uses a custom-built mate-demate device (MDD) that lifts the orbiter on and off the jumbo's back. A NASA file photo of the MDD mating process taken after STS-44 in December 1991 shows the proud orbiter taking its position on a shiny 747, evening light pouring over both. Today, the image reads differently: a cripple hoisted uncomfortably by machine for an easy-does-it orbit measured in feet rather than miles. Sunsetting.

The mate-demate device. (NASA)
Watching Californians watch their once-starbound vessel sing its silent swan song, one can't help but think of another 1980s icon who came home to live forever in Los Angeles: Ronald Reagan. Reagan neither initiated nor retired the Space Shuttle program, but as President during its zenith, he is forever inseparable from it. That January evening after Challenger's destruction, Reagan addressed the nation: “We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We're still pioneers.”

Flying low before California’s landmarks, the orbiter had an easier time dazzling us this month. Crowds gathered, pointing skyward with glee, apparently unaware they were watching a wake instead of a parade. Tweets, Instagrams, Facebook posts followed. A generation of millennial high-tech startup employees young enough to be my former campgoers took a break from setting up their new iPhone 5s to point at a spaceship flying lower than a biplane. So little have we come to expect from space travel that near-earth travel is now sufficient spectacle. Like the idea of a product is sufficient implementation, the idea of a spaceship has become sufficient thrill. “Nothing ends here,” Reagan told us in 1986. But things do end, eventually. Even iPhone has come down to earth, the new model having removed the longstanding default lock screen image of Earth from space in favor of a more humble pond ripple.

Reagan’s cortège was more involved and protracted than Endeavour’s, starting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, and taking a detour through D.C. to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda before making a somber returning to Southern California that punctuated the end of an era, for good and for ill. Endeavour’s arrived at LAX with more fanfare. As it landed, the Smithsonian Magazine proudly announced that Endeavour’s trip wasn't quite finished: “Right now, it’s being prepared for a cross-town move from the airport to the [California] Science Center,” the nation’s flagship museum announced, marking “the first, last and only time a space shuttle will travel through urban, public city streets.” On its way to interment at the facility’s air and space exhibits in Exposition Park, not even a biplane’s flight will be necessary to impress us anymore: Endeavour will be content as a commuter car, or a parade float. The stars down to earth.

President Reagan and his team watch a taped replay of the Challenger explosion. (National Archives)

In one of hundreds of images posed with Endeavour atop the SCA, employees at SpaceX clambered to the roof of their headquarters in Hawthorne, near LAX. They are the Shuttle Program’s accidental legacy. Created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk in 2002, the company produces the Falcon 9 two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule, the first commercial spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. This fall, Falcon9/Dragon will commence deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS) under what remains of NASA’s low-Earth space efforts, which goes by the workaday name of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). A cosmic UPS service.

SpaceX employees watch the Shuttle’s flight into Los Angeles. (SpaceX)
Musk is a hero of the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have themselves taken over the role of hero from Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. He’s also perhaps the closest real-world counterpart to Tony Stark, the fictional playboy and industrialist who becomes Iron Man in Stan Lee's comic books. Musk started SpaceX shortly before selling PayPal in 2002. Like Stark he’s a modest man, taking only the titles of CEO and CTO at SpaceX, in addition to his role as Chairman and CEO at Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer. SpaceX’s contract under the NASA COTS program is worth up to $3.1 billion, more than twice what Ebay shelled out for PayPal.

Musk is in the space freight business, hauling materials and equipment from earth to sky, a kind of twenty-first century Cornelius Vanderbilt in the making. Elsewhere, rich men lust jealously for space now that Earth's challenges have proven tiresome. John Carmack, the co-founder of iD software and co-creator of Doom started Armadillo Aerospace in 2000, eyeing space tourism via a sub-orbital commercial craft. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos helped found another private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, in the same year. And of course, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic in 2004, to provide sub-orbital space tourism as well as orbital satellite launch. In 2008, Richard Garriott, the role-playing game creator and son of American Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott, paid Space Adventures a reported $30 million to be flown via Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Just four years later, Branson’s Virgin Galactic was selling tickets for sub-orbital rides on SpaceshipTwo for a mere $200,000. Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry have already signed up. TMZ Galactic can’t be far behind.

In grade school during the early days of the Shuttle program, I remember writing and illustrating “astronaut” as a response to the dreaded “what do you want to be when you grow up” prompt. I didn’t really want to be an astronaut, but I knew that unlike my first inclination, garbage collector, it would be accepted as a suitably ambitious aspiration.

Space, once a place for governments and dreamers who would really just be civil servants, has become a playground for the hyper-affluent. Owen Garriott was an engineer from Oklahoma and a U.S. Naval Officer selected for life science service in space. Richard Garriott was a lucky rich guy with connections. We don't have flying cars, but we have a billionaire who sells electric cars to millionaires. We don’t have space vacations, but we have another billionaire who will take you on a magic carpet ride for two-hundred large. Today, a kid who says “I want to be an astronaut” is really just saying “I want to be rich.” Isn’t that what everyone wants? All of today's dreams are dreams of wealth.

The official mission of the final Space Shuttle, STS-135, reads more like a joke from The Office than a science fictional fantasy: “Space Shuttle Atlantis is carrying the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station.” Among its tasks: the delivery of a new tank for a urine recycling system, and the removal of a malfunctioning space sewage pump. If only I’d known in 1982 that astronaut and garbage collector would turn out to be such similar jobs.

Despite what you read in comic books, even Stark Industries has to bend metal and mold plastic. Elon Musk will take over the task of shipping sewage pumps and waste processing units and air filtration systems to the ISS. Richard Branson will sell Justin Bieber and Mitt Romney tickets past the Kármán line. Eventually, inevitably, Mark Zuckerberg will slip a bill to the surly bonds of earth and start his own space enterprise, just to keep up with the Rothschilds. Quiet maybe-billionaire Craig Newmark will expand his eponymous service to taxi unwanted minibikes and toasters and other worldly junk into space, the Final Landfill.

It’s not so much that the space program is broken in the sense of inoperative. Space is alive and well, for the wealthy at least, where it's become like the air and the land and the sea: a substrate for commerce, for generating even more wealth. Instead, the space program is broken in the sense of tamed, domesticated, housebroken. It happens to all frontiers: they get settled. How many nights can one man dance the skies? Better to rent out laughter-silvered wings by the hour so you can focus on your asteroid mining startup.

In the 1960s we went to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. In the 1980s we went to low Earth orbit because, you know, somebody got a grant to study polymers in zero-gravity, or because a high-price pharmaceutical could be more readily synthesized, or because a communications satellite had to be deployed, or because a space telescope had to be repaired. The Space Shuttle program strove to make space exploration repeatable and predictable, and it succeeded. It turned space into an office park. Now the tenants are filing in. Space: Earth’s suburbs. Office space available.