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July 10, 2011

The Last Naut

As the historic final Space Shuttle flight continues, I asked some of my fellow NSS members to send me their thoughts about what it meant to them.

NSS Director Jeffrey Liss offered his short story which was originally published in Artemis magazine in the summer of 2000, and that seems especially appropriate now. With his permission, I am posting it to this blog. I hope it will stimulate some discussion among the membership.

As for my own thoughts, I was fortunate enough to share some of them via NPR's "To the Point" show that aired on Friday, July 8. You can listen to host Warren Olney, myself, Architect Thom Mayne, and Astronomer Johathan McDowell discuss dreams of living on the Moon and the possibiliites of space solar power online. (The first 13 minutes is reporter Scott Powell at KSC.)

If you'd like to comment about the NPR show, Jeff's story, or share some of your own thoughts about the last Shuttle flight, please join me and others on our Facebook page.

To the stars,

-- Marianne Dyson, NSS Advisor, former Space Shuttle Flight Controller

http://www.mdyson.com


THE LAST NAUT

By Jeffrey G. Liss


As smoke from his small campfire twisted futilely toward indifferent stars, Ben Martin Jennings searched the heavens for that empty shell he had once called home, which the world called "Glasnost."

Nothing moved across the New Mexico sky. For the umpteenth time in the past fourteen months, he berated himself for having discarded his ephemeris. No man could remember the orbits of an abandoned piece of space history circling the planet seventeen times a day. But in self-honesty, he also acknowledged that a star chart was the last thing he wanted around. Or have the tribesmen see.

Sighing, he rose and strode into the night to check the sheep, a clear, cool, frost on the breath night, like the one in December 1972 on which his multi-million mile odyssey had started.
* * *

It began with his father's gently kneading his shoulders. "Ben, wake up. Get dressed." Ben rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A glance told him it was before dawn. He sat up, puzzled. It was too early for kindergarten.

"We're taking a trip, you and I," Matthew Jennings said. "Hurry, we want to be on the road by sun-up."

Five-year-old Ben scrambled to comply, wondering. Had he done something wrong? Could it involve his parents' argument the night before, when, through the doorway, he saw his mother shaking her head and his father standing straight and determined?

Explanations not forthcoming, Ben dressed and wolfed down his oatmeal. His mother put on his coat, gave him a surprisingly long hug, then led him to the door. "Come, Ben, your father is waiting. Have a good trip."

Their weather-beaten pick-up truck bounced down the dirt road from their farmhouse onto the two-lane central Illinois highway that linked Ben to most of his friends, but long before it hit an Interstate he had dozed off. He woke to see his father staring intensely at the road. "Dad?" Ben said. When there was no answer, he said it louder, "Dad?"

His father shook his head briefly. "Good morning, son. How are you feeling?"

"Ok. Where are we going?"

His father hesitated, "We are going to see a rocket take off." The strangely somber way he said it puzzled Ben, not like the way he said they were going into town, or to visit the Allens or even to visit Aunt Clara in Chicago.

"Oh." Ben had seen rockets on television. He guessed it would be interesting to see one in person.

"The rocket will be taking off in Florida. Do you remember where that is?" Ben smiled, "Sure." He had been good at his United States jigsaw puzzle. Florida was the funny state with the long handle at the bottom right. His father nodded approvingly.

Highways, gas stations, restrooms and restaurants blended one into another. They passed farm after farm and occasionally saw the towers of a city in the distance. Ben marveled at the bigness of the country. The mountains they crossed enthralled him, but what seemed strangest was not seeing the long clean line of the horizon.

Ben had never before spent a night in a motel. That and just the talking and being alone with his father made him feel very grown up.

By late afternoon the next day the land had flattened and traffic grew heavy. Tires vibrated soothingly against road. Ben dozed.

His father shook him awake. The sun was gone and the truck was parked. Ben saw with astonishment that cars lined both sides of the road as far as he could see in both directions. People stood alongside many, some with binoculars, some with cameras. In the distance a puddle of light illuminated a thin, white rocket. Except for some engine exhausts and an occasional hint of a conversation, there was stillness.

"Ben," his father said, pointing, "Pay close attention." His voice held a tightness that Ben had never heard. "That's Apollo 17. That's the last one. This is the last time men will be going to the Moon."

Matthew turned on the radio and swept the tuner from station to station, until a voice came on: "T minus two minutes, and counting." Ben felt his father's hands tighten on his shoulders.

Suddenly the radio said. "T minus thirty seconds, and holding." His father bent closer to the radio. Ben sensed the disappointment as his father explained that there would be a delay. How long, Ben asked. I don't know, Matthew said. "They might even cancel the launch. In that case, Ben, I'm afraid we'll have to go home, and we won't be able to come back." He said that with the greatest sadness Ben had ever heard.

His father saw Ben's confusion, reached over and placed Ben on his lap. "Son, see that rocket there? That's the greatest thing men ever built. Do you remember those pictures of cave men? Well, we all were cave men once. But we learned to make clothes, build machines and explore new places. Do you remember covered wagons? They discovered new places and made a wilderness into our country. The moon is so far away, it would be like traveling from home to here 240 times, and there is no air to breathe. But three years ago we learned how to build rockets to get there -- there's always a way if you look hard enough -- and some day the things we learned while doing that will help make our lives even better. That rocket represents the very best within us. And you can tell your children you were here to see it go."

His father fell silent, closing his eyes, bending his head. Ben felt that somehow he ought to be comforting his father, but he couldn't figure out why. With radio as background, they huddled together unspeaking, thinking about the moon and the night and the stars.

Abruptly his father turned up the radio and broke the warmth of their almost two-and-a-half hour silence. "Quick, it's going now."

They scrambled to the window. A few seconds later a blast of light transformed the midnight into -- it wasn't like daytime, but was more awesome, like Ben imagined in church it would be when the angels came. And then, as that slim rocket rose slowly on a column of flame, the red and yellow radiance was reinforced by the sound of thunder that rolled through the truck and over the silent throngs. What power, Ben thought, to make such a noise so loud so far away. Who could even imagine how to do it.

Behind him his father grasped his shoulders, whispering, "Never forget. Never . . . ."

The rocket rose ever more swiftly into the sky, disappearing into distant clouds. Slowly the light dimmed and the thunder died. Even the belated clapping of some of the spectators ceased. There was a total silence broken finally by the starting of one engine after another.

"Oh, Dad," Ben whispered, "that was beautiful." He hesitated, curiosity mingling with excitement, then asked, "Why was it the last?"

His father shook his head slowly, "I don't know." He looked as sad as he sounded. "I just don't know."

It was a long ride home, mostly in silence, Ben and his father each lost in his own thoughts.
* * *

The moon never again looked quite the same to Ben, no matter how many nights he went outside to stare at it. His doodles became filled with rockets, and he fell in love with Star Trek re-runs. In third grade his father bought him one of Heinlein's juvenile novels. Ben prowled the library and bookstores until he had devoured them all, and daydreamed of opening strange new worlds. By seventh grade he had found Clarke's stories of human destiny and Asimov's psychohistories. From there he swept into real history and biography.

Along the way he acquired a small telescope, and the moon and planets leaped closer. Enlisting a few friends, he sent away for model rockets and watched lovingly assembled kits leap proudly upward until their quick, sad return to Earth.

By high school dreams evolved into determination, and determination into achievement. He graduated the best math-science student his school had ever produced. In his spare time he did grunge work at the local airport, but he had talked the operator into giving him flying lessons in exchange.

Too soon, and yet too slow, high school ended. At the senior prom he and Sally Brown danced slowly around the ribboned gym. Marveling as always at how she could be both so soft and so firm, he squeezed her closer. Yet part of him felt like an outsider just observing them, and he puzzled over how he could be so detached while inhaling her fragrance. Perhaps, he thought, he was withdrawing because one chapter was closing and a dramatic new one beginning. Sally was headed for the U of I, but both knew she would return to the heartland to teach school. Whereas Ben was bound for -- who knew where? But he would not be returning home.

"Let's go out and look at the moon," he whispered, "It's almost full tonight."

Sally leaned back against his arm, repressed a giggle and looked at him closely. "I'm not sure I like the way you look at the moon," she finally teased. "Are we going to look for crater shadows again?" He pressed her waist toward the door and murmured softly, "There's always another way."

He whizzed through college and then acquired two post-graduate engineering degrees. "The next chapter of history will be in space," he told his classmates. "That's where I am going."

Against the odds, perhaps from some ironic destiny, Ben was one of just fourteen chosen for his class of astronauts, out of 4300 applicants.
* * *

The usual cacophony of canned music greeted Ben as entered the Two Thousand One, the latest in a long line of Houston watering holes favored by astronauts. He squeezed into a booth occupied by three other astronaut candidates, Braulio Vicintin, Alan Spenser and Judi Kane.

"Hi, Ben," they greeted him. "Where've you been?"

"Albuquerque and Santa Fe, talking to three high schools and two Chambers of Commerce."

"That's beautiful country," Alan said, "the high desert."

"It is. Awesome. It reminded me of Buzz Aldrin's description of the moon, 'magnificent desolation.' I'm going back someday. Your soul can soar there."

"How were the kids?" Braulio asked.

"Enthusiastic, as usual. They wanted to know what it felt like when the rockets start booming." He grinned. "Sure wish I knew."

"And the Chambers?"

Ben shrugged. "The same," he said. "Nothing special."

Judi squeezed his hand. "Come, Ben, let's dance."

A former gymnast, former ballet student, Judi made even Ben feel like a graceful dancer. Cushioned into his shoulder on the crowded floor, she said finally, "You didn't sound very enthusiastic."

Ben looked down at the five and a half foot astronomer with the short brown hair, pert features and a smile that always bedazzled him like the novas she studied. Sharing a determination to be one of the lucky few from their class to actually get into space, they nonetheless had grown close enough during their intense training to share their most secret dreams. She wanted to dance in zero G and then run an observatory on the Lunar farside. He wanted to retire on the moon and write history. Or perhaps be mayor of Luna City. "I don't fool you, do I?" he responded.

"Let me guess," she continued. "Those successful businessmen gave you a standing ovation and treated you like a hero. And you don't feel like one."

"Right," he sighed. "I haven't done anything to deserve it. I'm just in training."

"Ben," she said, pressing more tightly against him, "look at this way. Maybe you haven't flown. But you will. In the meantime you're a symbol of NASA, which is a symbol of the country, like the flag. When they salute you, they are saluting the country and the very best of it. You give them hope. You are not a fake."

At that moment, astronaut Lynne Zealand rushed in and whispered to the bartender, who turned on the giant TV above the bar. ". . . Congress completed work on NASA's budget. As threatened for many years, deep cost cutting has hit the nation's space program. The U.S.'s international space station has been put on hold, the shuttle replacement launch system has been put on hold, astronaut recruitment has been frozen, and the NASA budget has been cut 40% . . . ."

Judi turned to Ben and watched the big farmboy struggling to hold back tears.
* * *

Ben's class received their astronaut wings, but much of the exhilaration was gone. Congress' final cancellation of the space station at year-end was almost anti-climactic. Already the wait for flight assignments was years long. More than half the astronauts resigned, bailing out into private industry while they could.

Judi's astronomical research fell within the new NASA parameters. She joyously stayed in. Ben simply could not tell himself that there was no way to realize his dream. There has got to be a way, he thought. He stayed in, too.

More than that, Ben somehow felt that if he dropped out, it would be he who had betrayed the future. He could not live with such guilt.

Then, months later, a jolt of hope. He opened his door and an excited Judi swept into his apartment. "Ben, did you hear the news! The Russians have invited us to join them. You're going into Space!"

From Russia came an offer that even ostrich American politicians could not ignore. The proposal was to combine the leftover elements of the abandoned Mir and U.S. programs to build a small multinational space station, to be known as "Glasnost." Engineer astronauts like Ben would be needed.

They hugged each other and laughed around and around the room.
* * *

When Judi debarked with the rest of the "Endeavour" crew, she turned at the ramp bottom and stared at the old shuttle, with its American flag and Russian star, and gestured in a half salute. Then, wiping a tear, she turned to meet Ben Jennings.

"Oh, Ben," she said, "it was so wonderful. It was all that I imagined. If only I could go back."

There was nothing Ben could say. Her flight had been to the Hubble Space Telescope. Ben had monitored the satisfaction in her voice as she successfully made the last adjustments that would be necessary for years. He also had heard the excitement in her voice as amidst her dry reports to Mission Control she tortuously inserted the word specially coded for him, "Spider." She had danced her dance in zero G and, at least for that, she was at peace with herself.

The next flight would be Ben's. But budgetary pressures had never ceased. It would be the last manned flight for the indefinite future.
* * *

The blue marble of Earth spun gloriously below. Ben sighed. At the airlock, Yuri Korolev grinned. "You never tire of that view, do you?"

Ben sighed again, watching the American west slipping noiselessly past the terminator into a long night. "No. I never do and I'll never forget it."

Yuri said gently, in his Russian accented English, "I guess we are through here. Everything's packed, and the old home is bare and clean. Ready for the next tenants, except there won't be any."

Ben said absently, "Will the last person to leave please turn off the lights." In response to Yuri's puzzled look, he added, "Sorry, friend, that's just an old expression I remember reading somewhere."

Yuri knitted his thick brows, "Who shall be the last to leave?"

"I'll flip you for it," Ben grinned.

"Very funny," Korolev returned, waving his hand to indicate the zero gravity in which they were floating. They eventually settled on scissors, stone and paper.

On such whimsical decisions does the fate of humans turn.

After taking a last, anguished look at humanity's greatest achievement, Ben crawled through the airlock, slammed the massive door, spun the locking mechanism, and joined Yuri in the re-entry capsule. Forty-five minutes later he ignited the retro rockets that started them on the long retreat to Earth.
* * *

"Why a ticker tape parade?" Ben asked. "I didn't do anything."

"Just be quiet and smile," Judi said. "What the President commands, astronauts do."

"Grounded astronauts," Ben muttered.

Judi continued. "I think the real reason is that everyone feels a little uneasy about the end of the manned space program. The President wants to do something to celebrate our achievements in space. Everyone likes a hero, and people may stop asking whether someone made a big mistake.

"As the very last human in space, you're special, and a logical focus. So just get going, hero, and remember to smile." She reached up and kissed him gently.

The longer the parade went on, the more uncomfortable Ben grew. Why were all these thousands cheering him? Why were parents holding up their children? What justified this adulation. All he had done was close the door. He felt like a fraud.

He had not pushed back the frontier. He had fled before it. He was a symbol of failure.

At parade's end, the President presented him with the Medal of Freedom. Ben felt faint. He couldn't wait to get away.
* * *

"I don't understand," Judi said, her gentle, curious voice coming clearly -- ironically, Ben thought, via satellite relay. "You are 'the Last Naut,'" a hero to everyone. Why did you resign? There's still some work for astronauts. And things could still change. They'll need us back in space someday."

"I'm sorry, Judi," Ben said, "It's hard to explain. Space is just a charade now. I can't make myself just go through the motions. I am no hero. I am ashamed to wake every morning and face in the mirror the ghost of what could have been. At least you found some real work searching for near-Earth asteroids."

Judi asked, "Well, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know," he said. "Rest a while. I can always teach or go into industry. Maybe I'll go on the lecture circuit to push space. You know, fight the good fight, tilt at windmills, turn the country around. Call me Rocky. Dad said there's always a way if you look hard enough. But, God, I am going to miss you."

"Me, too, Ben."
* * *

The chicken was rubbery, the toasts flowery, the speeches droning, just like all the other banquets.

Mayor Robert Morgan continued his praise of Martin. "A genuine American hero. . . . a home-town boy, one of our very own, who made good. . . . reflects the dedication of the American pioneers . . . ."

Ben almost gagged, and he knew his late father would have understood. But at the sight of his mother, sitting proudly at the table below the dais, Ben swallowed, took a deep breath, and sat a little more erect.

Afterwards, people crowded around him. A reporter from the local newspaper asked, "What are you most proud of, sir?"

Ben paused, mentally shrugged "what the hell" and said, "Nothing, really. Actually I am ashamed of what I did, what I am. The last human in space. Don't you feel embarrassed that I'm the last? Is quitting the kind of thing you honor?"

The reporter didn't know what to say, but he knew those words were not what his editor wanted. Without putting pencil to paper, he just went on, "Uh, well, what would you say were the principal influences on your life?"

Ben sighed. As soon as decent he extricated himself from the crowd and went home. He slept restlessly that night.
* * *

The space industry was virtually dead, but Big Business could always use heroes, especially one who was a skilled engineer. There was always a consulting assignment for Ben Martin Jennings. That gave Ben time and occasions for touring the country.

In New York City he urged the Association of Business Executives to fight for the renewal of the manned space program, reminding them that it had more than paid for itself. "For example," he asked, "don't you remember the Chapman study? That study found that just one percent of non-space applications of NASA technology during just one eight-year period generated more than $21.6 billion in sales and benefits, 352,000 mostly skilled jobs, and $355 million in federal corporate income taxes -- not to mention personal income taxes paid by those workers, whole new industries created, and incalculable benefits resulting from an improved quality of life."

In the question period they asked what it felt like when the solid rockets lit off, and what it was like to work with the Russians. No one asked how they could get the space program re-started. At the end they gave him a standing ovation, said he was a hero, asked for his autograph and rushed back to their offices.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ben reminded the Society of American Historians of the economic and intellectual vigor created by America's frontiers, now all closed except for space. He reminded them of China 500 years ago, a dominating commercial nation until the Emperor decided he had more important things to do at home and recalled and dismantled his vast fleet, leaving his people in the world's impoverished backwater for half a millennium. "No society has ever gone wrong betting on the frontier," he declared, and challenged the academics to lead the resurrection of America's space frontier.

They asked him what it felt like to be weightless.

Ben walked disconsolately back to his empty hotel room. "O, my country! My species!" he cried silently into the night. "None are so blind as who will not see." He jammed his hands into his pockets. It was cold out, and there were no stars.

When Ben addressed the National Conference of Churches he pointed out that all the wealth that went into the Vatican might have fed all Italy for a few weeks, and then would have been gone; but concentrated in the Vatican, that awe-inspiring investment became a focal point with the power to influence millions for centuries. The space program -- with humans speaking from other worlds -- also would have a power to inspire a tolerance of a diverse humanity far beyond its cost. "If only you will help."

The clergymen asked how astronauts celebrated the Sabbath when circling the world seventeen times a day, how often and when they might celebrate Christmas during the 687-day Martian year, whether Martian colonists could celebrate harvest festivals, and how Moslems among them could face Mecca. They didn't ask about finding God.

In state after state Ben talked to teachers, reminding them how the manned space program was the biggest motivator in attracting students to math and science, the basis for the country's future economy. They crowded around afterwards, seeking autographs and having their pictures taken with him. Then they went on to discuss how to get more money for teacher salaries from the federal government.

In Kansas City he talked to farmers. "I have been a farmer. As the world's population quadruples in the next decades, we will need the resources from space -- solar power, metals, gasses. Just like our crops, before we can harvest them, we've got to invest in building and tending the machines we need. Space technology has been the seed corn for our new industries. We should never stop investing in seed corn."

"How did it feel," they asked, "sitting atop that big rocket waiting for all those explosives to go off?"

Everywhere, there were accolades for his bravery, and each time he cringed more. Richmond, Dubuque. Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Birmingham. Duluth, Sacramento, St. Louis, Portland. He crisscrossed the country. His earnestness fought with the jadedness of repetition as everywhere he sought some fertile ground for his message, some understanding of his urgency. There has got to be a way, he insisted to himself, to make them understand.

And everywhere they hailed him as hero, hearing the messenger -- but never the message.

The miles and the months swept by, taking their toll. "I'm sorry, Dad. I just can't find a way." Exhausted, and with the stars no nearer, he finally gave up.
* * *

Bearded and bedraggled, Ben Martin Jennings trudged up the dirt road. Two hours and six miles back he had left the cluster of adobe buildings that passed as a village in New Mexico. The sun was setting as he crossed a final rise and descended into the camp below, a group of shacks and huts at the edge of a small mesa dotted with sheep and a few garden plots. The community, numbering perhaps three dozen hopelessly intermixed descendants of various Indian tribes and Mexicans, watched his approach.

Ben handed to the headman who came forward the well creased envelope with the introduction he had received from a sympathetic New Mexican rancher:
“Dear Miguel,
“This letter will introduce my friend Ben Jennings, who knows farming and cows and goats. He would like to stay with you for a while, and would learn to help you tend your sheep and anything else he can do. Please help him if you can.”

The headman studied Ben a moment, and then turned to the others, "A moment, Senor." As they passed around the letter, a streak of fire lit the sky, and all looked up at the dramatic shooting star -- Ben had never seen one so vivid. As it faded into the distance, Miguel said, "A good omen. You are welcome, Senor."

Time passed, and the seasons. Some of the tensions eased out of Ben as the rhythm of life absorbed him. No newspapers, no radio, no television. Just people doing what their ancestors had done for a thousand years, subsisting and minding their own business.

No one knew his past life. No one called him hero, he who had failed in his past life. That burden was gone. He felt the accomplishment of safeguarding his sheep, nurturing crops in his garden, and participating in the community life, singing and helping teach the eight children.

But each night Ben would stare up at the stars, and each night they would stare back. Were they mocking him? Was this all life was for?

Some nights Miguel's older son joined him, Juan, whose eyes shone with the joys of discovery as he soaked up all the math Ben could convey and who confided to Ben that some day he would explore the whole world beyond the valley. Sometimes Juan would point up and wonder, were there worlds up there he could explore, too? Ben squeezed his eyes shut without answering.
* * *

The sheep were doing fine, and Ben returned to sit before his small fire, blowing to warm his hands. He reached into his pocket for the letter he already had read a dozen times. "The first letter I've delivered out here in two years," the postman had said.

He read:
“Dearest Ben,
“It's been over a year since you dropped from sight; I had the devil of a time tracking you down. Things have changed and we need you here -- and I miss your naive earnestness. You were right after all -- there was a way to get people excited about the space program again. Only we didn't see it until it almost hit us over the head.
“Shortly after you disappeared, the world got a great shock. One of those Earth orbit crossing asteroids I've been looking for -- but didn't find in time -- grazed the atmosphere. I heard that the fireball lit up the southwest. Perhaps you saw it. In any event, so soon after the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet's monstrous impacts on Jupiter, we recognized the opportunity. Where logic and vision failed to show the way, fear finally did. The UN, the USA, and just about everybody else have now agreed they'd better take space more seriously, if only to deal with this threat. NASA's budget has been doubled for Project Spaceguard, and all experienced astronauts and cosmonauts are being recalled. Especially engineering astronauts. They are going to put me in charge of an asteroid-searching observatory on Luna's farside, and I need your help to build it.
More than that, the "Last Naut" still carries a lot of P.R. clout and you might be indispensable to make sure the fervor doesn't die down. The public remembers your crusade and, if they see you back out front, I don't think they will let their hero down a second time. NASA awaits you.
“Love,
“Judi
“P.S. For some reason, I am still single. Hurry back.”

Ben stuffed the letter back in his pocket and looked up, whispering to the beckoning stars, "You're right, Judi. There's always a way. We'll build new worlds for Juan and his children. And ours."

It was time to go home.

END

Posted by m_dyson at July 10, 2011 01:18 PM

 

 

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