Essays: Fun ride in space |
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Fun ride in space

Visual thrill of the year was undoubtedly the space shuttle Columbia blasting off last Sunday. This event was heightened in its intensity by the fact that the space shuttle had spent several hours not blasting off the previous Friday.

The BBC’s Tomorrow’s World team were there to keep us informed on both occasions. Or rather the team was here to keep us informed — the Beeb had nobody at the actual Cape except Kieran Prendiville, who reported by telephone, no face. All the British faces visible were emanating from London. In the great early days of space it would have been James Burke and a whole team of experts. The experts would have waved graphs while James Burke went up and down the gantry in a cage and crawled into a rocket socket. For the shuttle shot we were down to Michael Rodd and one expert, Geoffrey Pardoe. Geoffrey goes right back to the days when James Burke was blasting off every few weeks, but Michael, or Mike, as he is usually known, is a new boy in a blow-wave haircut who normally spends his time telling you how some new computerised accounting system is going to put you out of work.

Mike and Geoffrey proved their collective cool on Friday, however. When the big moment came nothing happened. The space shuttle just sat there like the Taj Mahal minus the ornamental lake. It turned out that three of its computers were functioning properly, but the fourth was processing tax returns for the population of Pittsburgh. Covering brilliantly, Mike cued in Judith Hann, a ‘Tomorrow’s World’ pitch-person whose usual beat is demonstrating how the latest atomic-powered four-wheel-drive invalid trolley can climb sand dunes. This time she explained how the shuttlenauts, in the event of an abort, would ride down a rope in a basket, jump in a hole, and wait there until the fuel finished exploding. Since the hole featured a two-day food supply, you got the sense that a conflagration of Biblical proportions had been envisaged.

What continued to happen, however, was nothing. Apparently the fourth computer had given up processing tax returns and started cataloguing old Bing Crosby 78rpm singles. ‘For the latest on that situation,’ flannelled Mike, ‘over to Kieran.’ But the fourth computer must have plugged itself into the satellite. ‘Tweeng ping moot,’ said Kieran, ‘Wee wee wee wee. Pfft.’ Geoffrey covered by talking about ‘a very integrated system as such.’ Finally the very integrated system as such was stood down until Sunday, while the engineers got on with the job of replugging the fourth computer, which by this time was counting all the cows in India.

By Sunday the newspapers were pretending to be blasé about the space shuttle. The Tomorrow’s Worldlings, however, were still keen to go. As so often happens, naïvety was rewarded. ‘Something like the power of 23 Hoover dams’ was promised by Mike as the force that would be unleashed. While you were still wondering whether the power of twenty-three Hoover dams was significantly different from the power of twenty-three million Hoover vacuum cleaners, the wick finished sizzling and up she went. Instead of replicating the stately tower-of-power effect created by the Saturn launch vehicles, the shuttle assembly yelled off the pad like a burning cat and headed straight for space in order to cool off. The thing was in orbit almost before Mike had finished being disappointed about how the satellite pictures conked out at the precise moment when the used-up boosters were blown free. ‘We’ve lost the pictures, unfortunately. Let’s look at what’s just happened in animation.’

While we looked at cartoons of the boosters being dumped, Kieran tuned in from Florida with the information that the real pictures of the boosters being dumped were something to write home about. ‘The pictures we saw here were unbelievably spectacular.’ While Kieran was saying this on the telephone we were looking at pictures of Mike’s face. Meanwhile the actual shuttle was already up there. It might still have been shedding tiles like an old housing development, but it was upside down in zero gravity while the two lucky men inside were seeing the world.

After a couple of days of that they were ready to come back, the fourth computer having presumably finished its digital rewrite of ‘Paradise Lost.’ One of the treats in store for future viewers, when a television camera can be lifted to the atmosphere’s edge and moved fast enough laterally to track with a returning shuttle, will be to see the ceramic-clad machine come screaming home all lit up like an incandescent bathroom. But for now there was plenty to be going on with. First you saw a white dot, then a white dot with wings. At 124,000 ft the shuttle was still moving at Mach 6, while the fourth computer nonchalantly whistled the adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Time for some fully banked turns to damp out speed.

No mere projectile but a fully fledged aircraft, the Columbia tilted with an élan that reminded you all over again of why Leonardo wanted to fly like a bird — because the sensation was wasted on birds. ‘Desperately trying to lose speed,’ announced Mike, choosing the wrong adverb exactly. Out came the wheels, up went the nose, and the final few knots of all that enormous velocity were smoothed away to zero. Having proved itself to be the biggest fun ride since the prototype magic carpet, the space shuttle sat there in contented silence while the fourth computer started counting the stars.

The shuttle beamed down some beautiful pictures of Earth, but one felt sour with envy of the men taking them. No such consideration marred one’s enjoyment of the pictures of Saturn in a special two-part Horizon (BBC2), since they were taken by a robot camera on an unmanned spacecraft. Not only that, they had been computer-processed and enhanced in a way that made you feel a bit inadequate to be looking at them with the unaided human eyeball. Nevertheless the total effect generated fully human emotions, perhaps the foremost of them being pathos. For a moment you felt the way Einstein must have felt all the time.

In Einstein’s great mind there was no distinction between human creativity and the inspired order he saw in the universe: that the laws and principles of nature should be so poetic was for him no contradiction. He would not have been surprised at the sheer loveliness of Saturn’s rings and moons. For us lesser mortals the spectacle is bound to be something of a poser. Luckily we have Patrick Moore to help us. In The Sky at Night (BBC2) he telephoned an astronomer called Dr Spinrad. ‘I just wonder,’ wondered Patrick, ‘if and when we’re going to be able to see all the way to the edge of the observable universe.’ Patrick held the telephone as if he had never seen one before in his life. Looking like a baby smoking a cigarette, he embodied the childlike curiosity which gives science its indefatigable force.

Sumptuously directed by Kevin Billington, Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Granada) was admirable in every department. The principal playing was especially good. The Saddest Story I Have Ever Heard is either a great novel or else a transparent attempt by Ford to give his chaotic private life the dignity of tragedy. Probably it is both, but the duality of intention leaves Ashburnham a bit of a blur. Jeremy Brett gave the blur as much definition as was possible. Susan Fleetwood, as Leonora, had another dream to embody — Ford’s ideal woman — but her extraordinary gift of statuesque warmth could make you believe in anything.

In Dallas (BBC1) Miss Ellie has decided to divorce Jock, perhaps because of the inconceivable stupidity he has shown in every situation since the series began. On the other hand Pamela’s hairstyle has returned to something like normal. JR is fascinated by a strange woman with a face like a mask. I don’t suggest that her face has been lifted, but there is a possibility that her body has been lowered. Despite heroic work by Kika Markham, The Life and Times of Lloyd George (BBC2) is a dog.

The Observer, 19th April 1981
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]