“So how are you planning to top this mission? Are you sending the Pope next time?”
All the reporters laughed. Of course the question wasn’t serious, but it did give me a chance to work in a sound bite that my PR coach had suggested. “Eventually, we’ll send everybody. But one step at a time, please.”
Outside, it was seven in the morning on the kind of pleasant, clear Wednesday in October that makes you think of football, or a long drive someplace where the leaves are turning-the sort of day that whispers “too good to waste.” Inside, the press conference room was just like its equivalent at any Washington hotel-plastic “crystalware,” stiffbacked chairs, lots of room down front for cameras, a long table on folding platforms with all the legs concealed by fabric velcroed to the edges. I sat at one end of the long table, answering questions before die person die reporters wanted to talk to got here.
“Mr. Blackstone,” die man from CBS asked, “we all know that you originally hoped to fly civilian tourist flights yourself, as pilot. Is there any chance that you’ll be doing mat any time in die next few Citizen Observer flights?”
“Of course I’d like to go,” I said. “But it took some pretty generous offers to get ASU to let us put people into empty seats. My next spaceflight, pilot or passenger, is a few years away, I’m sure.”
“Would you fly a shuttle again if ASU invited you to?” This reporter, for some reason, didn’t seem to want to give die question up. “You’ve been very careful about keeping your qualification to fly a shuttle.”
“I keep my pilot’s license, too,” I pointed out. “You really shouldn’t read any more into it man that.”
After that, the questions were less personal. I didn’t mind die attention, particularly, but as CEO of ShareSpace, I’d rather it went to my company.
Then we went into the usual ritual questions—the reporters in die room already knew die answers, but their editors might need footage of someone saying those things.
“What kind of mission is this?”
“Like most of die ones Columbia flies nowadays. A general, mixed-bag deal—a little science, a little tech, a little business, a little promotion. You all know I can’t talk about anything classified, but sometimes they do classified work, as well, for a defense or intelligence agency.”
“Do you know what factors influenced Pegasus Corporation’s decision about who to send?” It was die same guy from NBC who had needled me before.
“They wanted maximum publicity, I’d guess. Hard to find a more famous person who would get more attention and be better identified with their shoes. Or maybe the Pope wasn’t available.” That got a laugh; I had just time to wonder if I’d crossed over one of those invisible boundaries that my PR people were always warning me about, before the next question. The reporter from the Times had me explain that the seats ShareSpace was selling were available because the International Space Station (ISS) was behind schedule, and so some shuttle flights had been released to other projects.
Then the tall woman from MSNBC walked me through a detailed review of who the first two Citizen Observers had been, in case somehow anyone watching the news now, in October, had managed to miss all die news in die previous May, or October a year ago. That seemed especially silly because “well, die first one is in die room,” I said. “Why don’t you tell us all about it, Fred?”
Fred Gernsback had been anchor for die Federal Broadcasting Network for almost two decades, and due to his enthusiasm for die space program, his voice had become more identified with spaceflight than that of any broadcaster since Walter Cronkite. He looked around die room, smiling broadly, and I wondered if anyone ever gets tired of being made the center of attention. “Well, it’s not complicated and it’s not all that interesting. The way it works is mat ShareSpace is a private business, like a travel agency, except that Scott Blackstone only sells two or three tickets a year. ASU operates spacecraft, like an airline operates airplanes, because NASA got out of direct operation, for die most part, a few years ago. ASU bought Columbia from die government, and most of die time they lease the other three shuttles. So what happened was that FBN bought my ticket from ShareSpace, which got me onto a flight on the Columbia, operated by ASU. No different from what happens when they buy me an airline ticket from Amex Travel Services to get me onto a 747 operated by United. Dull as dishwater.”
Everyone groaned and laughed; Fred’s irony was even more heavy-handed than usual. For ten days in October last year, millions of people had hurried home to catch Gernsback’s evening broadcast from orbit. The American public’s jaundiced perception of space travel—routine as airplanes and ancient as railroads—had been flipped right back over into wide-eyed wonder by Gernsback’s babbling joy about everything connected with the mission.
Gernsback went on. “And so it’s the same deal with this next Citizen Observer. Pegasus wanted publicity for their shoes, so they had to get publicity for their guy, so they went to Scott, Scott sold them a ticket, ASU is honoring the ticket, and tonight we’re going to witness a new space record-the tallest man ever sent into orbit. Just an ordinary business deal.”
“What does a company have to do to get someone on the shuttle, Mr. Blackstone?” a tall, slim black woman asked. “Officially for the record, and also because for all I know Pacific States Network might want to do that for me.”
It took me a moment to realize who it was- Nikki Earl, radio correspondent for a little shoestring net-work that mostly ran very liberal commentary and covered social welfare issues. Normally they weren’t big fans of the space program, so if she was here at all, it meant either they were gunning for us, or it was a slow news day. I answered, carefully, “I hope they can afford to send you, but for die moment it’s pretty expensive. It starts with a corporation becoming one of ShareSpace’s corporate partners, for one million dollars—or more, if you want to be near the top of the list.
“For your million you get a nice-looking plaque inside the shuttle, plus a turn at buying a ticket. When your turn comes up, we ask you for a five-million-dollar seat charge. Once you pay that, you can send anyone who can pass a medical exam and a security clearance. Your five million dollars does include meals and clothes for the trip.” There were a few chuckles at that. “There’s also a required commitment to devote at least eight million dollars to publicity—primarily about the sponsor itself, of course, but it also has to be clearly tied to ShareSpace and the orbital flight. So the real price of the cheapest ticket is about fourteen million, at the moment. We hope that within a decade we can be down under a million.”
Nikki Earl nodded. “So why does any corporation buy a ticket? I can understand why it was worthwhile for Fred—someone else bought his ticket, and he had a good time, and I’d go, myself, in a minute, if PSN would pick up the tab—but how can that fourteen-million-dollar ticket be worthwhile for any of the corporate sponsors?”
Her tone was reasonable and friendly, so I thought chances were that she was just here because it was a slow news day, and not because PSN was out to do a hatchet job on ShareSpace. She had asked a question I’d have loved to devote a whole interview to, but she needed something a minute long at most.
I started off with the obvious. “Well, it is private money, and they have to answer to their stockholders, so mostly I can just assume they want it and let it go at that. After all, the baker doesn’t care what you want his bread for, only that you’ll buy it, and so far we’ve got eighteen buyers lined up, so we must be selling what they want.
“But if I were speculating…I guess the sponsors must figure that kids love space. Being associated with space is the best publicity there is for companies like Pegasus and Avery that are so strongly oriented toward the youth market. And just now things connected with space seem to be more popular than at any time since the late sixties, so the sponsors probably see being associated with space as a good investment in publicity, period, not just with kids. The best way to find out might be to ask them.”
She nodded. “I have, and they said what you said. How about a follow-up?”
“As the parent of a ten-year-old, I can hardly miss that space is suddenly popular again. Why do you think that is?”
“Uh, I’m the parent of a ten-year-old boy myself, and I don’t know that I understand it any better than you do. I can make some guesses: the millennium. The anniversaries of so many space events. The new private ventures. The new pictures from the new generation of telescopes. A couple of big realistic movies, where they got the special effects right, after all those years of pure fantasy movies. Take your pick. How does that sound?”
“Like a baker who doesn’t know why he’s selling more bread, but is real happy that he’s selling it,” Nikki Earl said, and grinned at me—not one of those media-fake smiles for the camera. Mentally I marked her down as a possible ally and someone to float a story to sometime soon. ShareSpace was riding high on a wave of good publicity right now, driven by our sending the third most recognizable name in America (after Jesus and Santa) on this mission. But I didn’t want to neglect Nikki Earl—talking to her could be a chance to reach people we hadn’t reached yet, and nobody in the public eye ever has enough friends or knows when they might need one more.
So far, ShareSpace had plenty of friends. We were riding the crest of a two-year wave of popularity. Fred Gernsback had just been the beginning for us; he had barely returned to Earth when we took our next step. Avery Filmworks, the dominating giant in family entertainment, had gotten their turn at a ShareSpace slot on a Columbia flight for the following May, and they’d come up with an ingenious way to use it: they had launched Pyramid to Space, a competitive quiz show on the Avery Channel. The show was in the form of a tournament of space knowledge (or space trivia—I wasn’t sure how much an astronaut really needed to know how much the makers of Tang paid to have it included in the early space rations). During the winter holidays, fascination with the competition grew, for the winner—if physically fit enough—would be the next Citizen Observer.
In mid-January, Pyramid to Space was won by David Calderon, a garage mechanic from Brownsville, Texas. He had gone into orbit aboard Columbia last May, and if anything, he had done us even more good than Fred Gernsback had.
David could hardly have been better if Avery had created him from Central Casting—he was a good-looking twenty-five-year-old, muscular, slim, in perfect shape, a nonsmoker who drank rarely, and poised and confident as he revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of space and astronautics. When he won Pyramid, he was bombarded by congratulatory emails, phone calls, and letters, and not a few marriage proposals.
Between his victory, the MTV series that followed him through training, and his flight, he had been endlessly on camera for about six months, and during that whole time, he always enthusiastically boosted the launch, Avery Filmworks, Pyramid to Space, ShareSpace, the space program, and life in general. He had a knack for communicating, in ordinary language, his deep and broad knowledge of everything M connected with space, astronomy, planetary science, ” and astronautics—a knowledge he had acquired from years of reading science magazines and watching space documentaries, sources available to anyone, so that even in that regard he seemed to have the common touch. He charmed Barbara Walters, and was so popular that Larry King brought him back on the show twice; for a few weeks he was on every talk show that could possibly book him.
He was especially a hit on radio and TV call-in programs, and all the calls for David Calderon were very much alike: people who just wanted to tell him that they too had applied to compete in Pyramid to Space, that family and friends had made fun of them, and now they felt vindicated. “You proved that ordinary people will go to space,” they would say, or “This is what it’s all about, that space is the future of the whole human race.” Lots of people wished him luck and many suggested that if he had something else to do at the last minute, they’d be willing to take his place. He was good-humored and friendly through all of it, and every time David Calderon went on the air, we picked up more approval points, and another sponsor or two came banging on ShareSpace’s door, wanting to get in on the adventure.
On his flight, Dave was enthusiastic, happy, quotable, and still a brilliant commercial for the idea that space was going to be for everyone. We had put him on the payroll, and now he was out touring the country, visiting with corporate heads where we needed to sell a sponsorship, stopping off to talk to grade school classes and civic groups, speaking at high school commencements and Scout jamborees, and generally producing about as much good will as anyone possibly could.
But although Gemsback and Calderon had been wonderful, what was about to happen would trump every bit of past publicity ShareSpace had gotten, and make all our past triumphs mere prologue. Now that I had teased the room enough, “I think the time has come to meet the crew.” I nodded toward the door, and Naomi, my secretary, nodded back and pushed it open.
Seven people came into the room and joined me on the dais, but for all practical purposes, there was only one person in the room—Michael James, or MJ, as pretty much the whole planet called him.
He was over seven feet tall, and graceful, which would have been impressive even if he had been just a random stranger. Knowing his accomplishments, you felt awe—he had presence enough for some ancient king or legendary hero.
Two years earlier, when MJ had retired after more than a dozen years as the top center in the NBA, every newsmagazine had put him on the cover, and Time had found an excuse to feature him twice.
After the success of the journalist in space, since we had the second Citizen Observer contract already nailed down, it was time to reach for something even bigger. I put all my effort into hustling a contact with MJ, and to persuade Pegasus—maker of the most famous athletic shoes in die world, which were die most famous largely thanks to die autograph “MJ Michael James” stamped on die side of every one—to sponsor him as the die third Citizen Observer.
He was perfect for more reasons than just his fame, or his immediate recognition. MJ was a widely admired role model for American kids, known for his polite good sportsmanship and his advocacy of excellence in all fields. He was bright, articulate, spontaneously funny, but also thoughtful and serious when die occasion called for it. Best of all he was a space enthusiast, and had been ever since he was small. (We had some wonderful footage of his modier, AnnaBeth James, reminiscing about when “Mikey” was ten, and unhappy because he was al ready too tall to be an astronaut by die NASA rules of die day.)
ShareSpace had announced MJ’s selection nine days after David Calderon returned from orbit. Ever since, everything MJ had done had shown us that die idea was even more brilliant than we had thought.In die last four month, his appearances on kids’ shows and news and talk shows had been die best of all possible publicity for everyone—himself, Pegasus, ShareSpace, ASU, NASA—and for that matter, me.
It was an extra hassle to fly the crew up from Canaveral die evening before, then back to Kennedy Space Center for an evening launch today, but that was another public relations maneuver that I felt was paying off pretty well. If you hold your big events at or near KSC, you get a mix of second-string reporters and older ones who want a quick trip to somewhere warm. But if you hold the same events in one of the cities where the media’s first string is located, that’s who covers you—and those cities, basically, are New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. Washington was the shortest flight to Florida, ShareSpace corporate headquarters was here, and best of all, Washington was die major media city with the most predictable schedule—in NY or LA you could be pushed right out of die evening news slot by any freak local story, but in DC only a war or a sex scandal could steal your coverage.
MJ made a few introductory remarks, and everyone relaxed and settled in as if the press conference had just become a group of friends sitting around die living room. “Let me introduce die rest of die crew,” M J said, spreading his arms as if to embrace all of them. “This man to my far right, next to Scott Black-stone, is Billy Kingston, die commander. During die mission, he’s die guy who we all have to listen to. And if any kids are watching this—”
“They better be,” said Samantha Carter, who headed die special team for Nickelodeon, and everyone laughed.
“—like I said, if there’s any kids watching out there, something for you to pay attention to—Billy knows what he’s doing and knows how die ship works and everything else, a hundred times more than I do. He has all die knowledge and experience. Just like your mom and dad and your teachers know more than you do. So when he says to do something, I do it, and I don’t give him backtalk and I do it right away. When we’re up in space, my ten thousand field goals are just ten thousand of nothing compared to his knowledge and skill and experience. Listening to him and respecting his authority is part of keeping me safe and out of trouble, because there’s all kinds of trouble that can happen up there. Even MJ has to do what people who know more tell him to do. It was the same way when I was little and Mama wanted me to do something.”
In his deep Gulf Coast drawl, Kingston said, “Inthat case, your mission commander says to get the rest of die introductions done so we can get back to
“Yes, sir!— you see how I did that?—now, next to Major Kingston is Wes Packard, from West Virginia by way of West Point. He’s the pilot, the one who actually flies Columbia, and the father of Kati and Mary Lou, who are watching this morning, I bet.
This guy next to me is Josh Pritkin, mission specialist in electronics—” he gestured to the tall, thin man, who nodded to die cameras “—and he also plays pretty good ragtime piano, or at least he’s good enough to fool a basketball player. Lorena Charette here—” he gestured to a short, stocky black woman on his left “—is from Baltimore, is a medical doctor, is an Air Force major, and has had a much more exciting and interesting life man any professional athlete ever did, and if you media folks had any sense you’d be interviewing her instead of me.”
Actually, thanks to MJ’s quiet pressure, there had been a number of interviews with and features about Lorena, and she was on her way to becoming something of a celebrity in her own right.
“Now, the nervous-looking dude to Lorena’s left, who is wondering what embarrassing personal facts I’m going to bring up, is Marc Clement, astronomy mission specialist and my roommate during training.” MJ winked and said, “But with a nice, good-looking guy like that, all I have to do is ask what his mother would have asked—‘why is he still single?’ ” Clement blushed, everyone laughed, and MJ added, “I’ve done all I can, man, now it’s up to you. And, finally, not at all least, all the way to the left, our military payload specialist and our poker wizard, Damian Agustino—” he nodded to the short, square-built man “—my fellow Texan on the flight, so you know with two Texans on board, ain’t nothin’ to worry about.”
MJ was from Dallas, a fact that you couldn’t help knowing within ten minutes of meeting him. There wasn’t much about him you didn’t know pretty quickly. We’d vetted him thoroughly. As far as we could tell his biggest personal vice was a liking for mystery novels and his biggest problem was the difficulty of meeting women who might think about him as a serious romantic possibility, rather than as a trophy. He really was as nice as he seemed on TV—it drove the detectives crazy.
The first question was from a short, balding man, way in the back. “I just wondered if you’d like to comment on the fact that while you’re doing very well, and people will spend fourteen million dollars to send you to orbit, just this morning the House chopped twenty million out of the US Department of Education.”
My heart stopped. Michael was a world-class nice guy, but he had a temper, and he wasn’t used to being challenged about much of anything; I’d had a run-in or three with him over various things.
He stared at the man. “Well,” MJ said, finally, “you know, I’m sure, that Pegasus will spend the money to send me to orbit, but they also give around a hundred million a year to schools around the country. They have to, in a country that’s too damn cheap to take care of its own schoolchildren.”
Great, I thought to myself, we just lost ten more friends in the House.
“And of course I’m going to go if I get the chance. Any human being with a soul would want to, you know. That’s part of why questions like yours…” He looked down and shook his head. “Dude, where do you come up with something that dumb? You think I don’t know that we need more and better education, and hospitals, and food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless? You think that’s a surprise to your viewers? You think, maybe, you’re going to make me ashamed of where I came from, or ashamed to be rich from my success? I’ll tell you this. I know very well that I am a very lucky man. I know that I didn’t ‘deserve’ my chances in life. But I also tell you this. I got those chances, I took them, I’m taking them, and that’s the way it is. And more than that— because I do what people dream about, I give other people the power and the right to dream. And children—and grownups—all human beings need those dreams, the way they need oxygen and food and shelter. You tell me some people are poor? That’s a damn shame and I’m sorry, but I gave more to charity last year than you make in ten. You tell me my country, the best place on Earth, is robbing its own children? I’ll remember that when I vote. You tell me I ought to hang my head and feel bad about the greatest moment of my life? Chump, you can go to hell.”
One part of me wanted to hug him, and another part wanted to run out and issue a denial that he’d ever been in the room. Balanced between the urges, I stood there for a second, before Naomi loudly said, “Hey, he isn’t wearing a press badge!”
Hotel security dosed in on the little man, who rushed out the door and down the hallway. I never heard whether they caught him or not.
After that, die questioning was a lot more routine. MJ deflected more than half of the questions directed at him to the rest of the crew, making sure that people understood that this was a team effort, and giving most of me credit to die regular astronauts. He kept die media focused on die nature of die mission and die vision of where it led in die great scheme of space exploration. “If we could afford him,” I muttered to Naomi, who was handing up some papers to add to my swollen briefcase, “we’d put him on die payroll with Calderon. The two of them would get us a Mars mission set up and funded in no time.”
“He might be willing to do that free, you know,” she pointed out. “After he gets back, maybe you should ask.”
“—and another person you should all be watching— the person who saw that there was a need for all kinds of people, and not just specialists, in space,” MJ said, “Scott Blackstone. I owe a lot to his company— metaphorically speaking. Pegasus owes die money.”
I waved at die reporters. MJ’s re-introducing me was my cue to say that everyone needed to get back down to Florida. The seven of them posed for last-minute shots for die prescribed three minutes, and then I got them out die door while Naomi handed out duck press packets that insured that even die most unawake reporter would have something accurate to start from.
“That’s sure easier than the press conferences I used to have to do for die team,” MJ commented, as we settled into die bus that would take us to die charter plane at Washington Reagan. “You go to one of those conferences and they only let you say two things, over and over: you think die team’s going to win and you’re here to play basketball. And you have to find ways to keep saying that for an hour. Here, it wasonly twenty minutes, and there was something to talk about.” He leaned back and said, “Damn, though,mat first clown—die one mat wasn’t even a reporter— he pissed me off.”
“I wasn’t happy with him myself,” I observed. “I’m sorry he got through security; we’re going to have to check on that and find out how he did it.”
“You do that. I’d like to see a report. Because if a rude little chump can get through that easy, how do you know die next guy won’t have a gun? Makes me mad, and makes me scared, and this is one day when I didn’t need to be upset.”
Marc Clement was turned around, looking for a way to get a word in edgewise; the two of them had really bonded, which was good for die mission, and maybe better for MJ. Now Clement said softly, “That’s die problem with hotels.”
“That’s why you needed to hire your own,” MJ said, still talking to me. “And you didn’t.”
“No,” I said, “we didn’t bring our own security, and that was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
MJ blinked for a couple of moments, then extended his hand and shook mine. “It’s okay, Scott. Really. I’m letting myself get more upset man it’s worth Sorry.” He moved forward and sat down to talk with Marc Clement. That was Michael James for you; die terrible temper faded in seconds, as if it had never been there.
I stretched out in die back seat mat I’d commandeered for myself, pulled out my cell phone, and made a call. It should be half an hour at least before Amos was due to leave for school. On the second ring, I heard, “Hello?”
“Hello, Thalia, it’s Scott. Does Amos have a minute to say hello?”
My ex hesitated a moment, which told me she’d been expecting my call and wasn’t happy about it. “As long as it’s just a minute. I have to drop him at school early this morning, so you can’t talk to him long. But he didn’t want to go without getting a call from you. You could have called earlier.”
“Not really,” I said.
“We’ll have to go soon,” she said. “I can’t afford to be late today. I only have an hour to get things done before I have to get on a plane.”
I felt like asking her how it felt to be always running for a plane, and maybe even quoting some of the things she’d said to me about not putting my family first, but fighting with Thalia would cause her to hang up, and I really wanted to talk to Amos this morning. So I just said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but it was inconsiderate of me.”
I heard her breath hiss over the mouthpiece and thought she was going to find one more way to get on my case, but then I heard Amos, in the background, saying, “Gome on, Mom, let me talk to Dad, I’ve been waiting.” The rustle and thud of the phone being handed over was followed by the clat-clat of her heels walking away from the phone, and then at last Amos said, “Dad?”
I swallowed hard and made my voice upbeat. “Hi, Amos! We’re on our way out to the airport to get these guys into orbit, and I just wanted to squeeze in a second and say hello. How are things going?”
“School’s fine, I’m going to do peewee wrestling this winter, and I got that program I was playing with to work on the computer,” he said, covering all the usual bases of conversation in one sentence. “Mom works too hard and isn’t home enough, and I’m looking forward to seeing you the weekend after this.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “You’re stealing all my lines.”
“Well, we do have to go soon…” he said, sounding much too mature and responsible for a ten-year-old.
Maybe it was just that tone that made me feel like I had to offer something special to him. “Why don’t we spend the weekend after next at the cabin?”
“In the fall?” He sounded like he thought I was crazy. “Is there anything to do? Won’t it be too cold?”
“In the fall,” I said, emphatically. “The cabin has a woodstove, remember? We can fire that up and be warm and comfortable. The only summer things we can’t do are swim and buy cheap souvenirs. It will be sort of like camping out, but more comfortable. Probably it will be just you and me—nobody else on the beach. We can hang around and talk, you can beat me at chess, and we can build driftwood fires at night and tell ghost stories till we’re both too scared to sleep. It’s a nice time of year.” Desperate to sell him on the idea, I pulled out a reference to one of his heroes, and to a rime of life he was already fascinated with. “Back when we were in high school and college, your uncle Nick and I used to go down there in the fall a lot, just to hang out and do guy stuff.”
That clinched the deal. “Sweet, Dad. Let’s do it.”
“Weekend after this. What’re you up to this weekend?”
“Mom’ll be getting back from California late on Friday, and then she says she’s going to spend the whole weekend staring at the ceiling. I don’t know, probably just play with my friends and catch a movie.”
“Well, let her know that if she gets trapped in California, and Mrs. Talbert can’t take you on short notice, you can come over to my place. I have some boring stuff I have to do, meetings and appearances and things, but I don’t plan to be away this weekend.”
“Okay, I’ll tell her.”
“I love you, Amos.”
“I love you too, Dad.” I was about to say “bye” when MJ plopped down beside me. “If your son’s still there, let me talk to him.”
“Amos?” I said. “Hey, Amos—”
“Somebody here wants to talk to you.” I handed the phone to MJ.
A few weeks before, MJ had come by my house late on a Friday to sign some papers. He arrived in a van, floating in a cloud of lawyers and assistants. The business had gotten concluded quickly, but just as MJ had been loading his entourage back into his van, Thalia had come by to drop off Amos for the weekend. While my ex and I had a nearly civil short conversation about clothing that was getting outgrown and persistent low grades in handwriting, the NBA’s highest-paid player taught my son the basics of the layup and the jump shot. Afterwards, Amos was walking on air for days.
Now MJ was teasing him on die phone. “After all that work we did improving you in your b-ball, you gonna wrestle?…Oh, well, you just have to go and be die best wrestler you can, then, don’t you? Listen, just make sure you do what your coach tells you, and you always do everything one hundred per cent, ’cause that’s how you get somewhere. If your dad tells me you’ve been slacking off, I might have to come and dribble you around that driveway a few times before I slam you through that hoop, all right?…Yeah…now, you know, in every sport, there’s fundamentals, and you make sure you know them and you’re good at them. First two years in any sport, make sure you get the fundamentals, try to be the best at those. Never try to get fancy till you’re perfect as you can be at the basics.…All right, you do that.…What? No, I’m not scared. Maybe a little bit. But not any more than your dad was when he flew into space. This is gonna be more fun than anything I ever did before.… Yeah!…All right, Amos, talk to you later.”
He clicked off and handed my phone back to me. “That’s a really nice son you have.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You just made his year.”
MJ suddenly gave me the famous big toothy grin, full of mischief. “Hey, do you know anything about wrestling?”
“Not a thing,” I admitted.
“Me neither. Couldn’t think of a thing to tell him to work on! That’s why I said that stuff about fundamentals.”
I laughed. “You could’ve told him anything in the world and he’d be happy. Guess I have to bone up on wrestling, so I can at least have a faint idea what my son’s talking about.”
MJ smiled. “I’d call that a fundamental in parenting.”
The van took one of the corporate entrances into Reagan. I shook hands with the whole crew and thanked them all again. They got on the charter jet.
Back at the van, I looked at my watch; it was only nine A.M., and their liftoff was at 9:30 P.M. I had much to do in the next few hours, but I felt great. I sat back in the van and let die driver take me to the ShareSpace offices, up in Silver Spring.
It had been a long journey to this point in my life—the brink of total success—and I’d paid quite a toll for it. In a sense, my family had been paying it for decades before I was born. My great-grandfather, Peter Blackstone, the oldest of six brothers, had been a banker who loaned money to both the Wright brothers and the Curtiss family, and put some of his own money into stock with both fledgling companies. His kid brother, Henry, flew mail over the Appalachians in a Curtiss JNE, back when the best way to avoid too close a federal inspection was to be, literally, a fly-by-night operator; his three-airplane operation eventually ended up as the nucleus of die first airline on die same route.
Henry’s oldest son Stephen escaped from Stanford and paid his own way to became a mechanical engineer, holding several patents on die earliest jet engines, and was a founding stockholder in Republic, which went on to buy out the Wrights and created the powerful Republic Wright aircraft company for which my older brother Nick would eventually work. His youngest brother, George, whom I remembered as Grandpa Blackstone, ran away from home before his parents could pressure him into going to Yale, thus depriving them of their other chance for a lawyer or politician in die family. Instead, George joined die Army Air Corps in die 1920s, worked as a liaison training the Nationalist Chinese Air Force in die 1930s, flew with die AVG (die Flying Tigers) during die Second World War, and finished his career as an Air Force colonel supervising training in die military test pilot program. Because that was where so many of the first generation of astronauts came from, Grandpa Blackstone used to brag that he had bawled out, insulted, and screamed at more future astronauts than any other living person.
When Dad, the older of Grandpa Blackstone’s two sons, struck off on his own, he’d wanted nothing more than a quiet, settled life, one that didn’t involve moving every couple of years, plane crashes, or shouting. He had found his place in the world building models for wind tunnels at Curtiss Aircraft, which was about to become Curtiss Aerospace. When I was four, his brother, my Uncle Ted, died in a T-38 crash, just after being selected for the astronaut corps.
Nick and I followed family tradition: one tycoon, one lunatic. Nick went off to engineering school, and then as fast as he could into management, and rapidly rose to corporate VP at Republic Wright. He used to enjoy telling Dad and me that he thought engineers and pilots were fine people, and he admired them so much that he wanted to own as many as he could.
I went from AFROTC to the Air Force to pilot training as fast as they’d let me, and from there into the astronaut corps. Along the way, I married Thalia
Pendergast, whose family had been friendly with mine for decades. Thalia had finished her law degree during my first years in the Air Force, coping with moving every few months and getting most of her degree work completed on-line. She was four months pregnant with Amos on the day she got her invitation to serve as clerk to die Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Life became more settled once I became an astronaut and we could buy a house in Orlando; from a family perspective, being an astronaut isn’t so different from working for a company that requires lots of out-of-town trips. Thalia had a good position with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, and though Amos spent most of his time at day care, he seemed pretty happy.
Common sense would have kept me in the astronaut corps for a long time, and might well have kept my family together, but that itchy need to be doing something different eventually won out. After I had flown three shuttle missions, I started to be bothered by a peculiar thought: we didn’t really have a space program anymore.
Of course the United States had a presence in space, and we flew to Low Earth Orbit fairly often—I had been there three times myself. But no American— in fact, no human being—had gone farther than LEO since December 1972. We went to space for lots of things: commerce, navigation, communication, knowledge, military advantage. But a “program” would imply we were going somewhere, or had things to accomplish that we hadn’t done yet, and I just felt that “going somewhere” was exactly what we weren’t doing.
Any real space program would require getting many more people off the planet on a much more regular schedule than we had ever done before; the expression for it that emerged around 1985 was “airline-like operations.” I decided I might as well learn what an airline operated like.
That entailed changing jobs and changing towns. At least Amos wasn’t in school yet when we moved. Better still, since Global Airways, my new employer, was headquartered in DC, it was very little strain on Thalia—“You’re moving me to lawyer heaven,” she said, when I first brought the subject up.
I didn’t plan to stay with Global, but it was a good place to get the knowledge and experience I needed. They were a charter airline that specialized in transporting high-income tourists to and from adventure experiences, and I was already fairly sure that high-cost adventure tourism would be the first major stepping-stone in the private-industry pathway to routine human space travel.
There was an obvious way for a highly experienced pilot to get some of the experience I needed, and that was what I applied for at Global. As a pilot, executive, and tour leader, I took planeloads of wealthy customers to Australia to snorkel die Great Barrier Reef, into and out of half die airports in East Africa and in the Cone of South America for safaris and climbing and fishing trips, and to South Pacific islands I could barely pronounce. I learned a great deal about pleasing tourists, even more about getting along with other companies (most flights were sponsored or paid for by some corporation), and far too much about international aviation law and coping with what we politely called “irregularities in the infrastructure.”
You haven’t really improvised until you’re taking off from the boondocks of Bangladesh, you hit a water buffalo on the runway, and die plane veers into swampland and sinks to its belly—and you’ve got sixty Republic Wright execs, including your own hypercritical older brother, aboard, and they’re all due home in forty-eight hours. I got them home, and stayed out of jail, and Global still made money—but it was a very long forty-eight hours.
Meanwhile I kept my shuttle rating. For four years I was a reserve Air Force officer, so that I could get in my monthly fifteen hours of jet time, and I got up early on many mornings so I could use the shuttle simulator at Langley AFB to do that part of maintaining qualification. As space gradually privatized throughout the nineties, and launch systems operations were moved out of NASA and turned over to the newly created private corporation ASU, Global had increasing hopes of being able to rent Columbia for a flight and have me take up a load of passengers.
On my fortieth birthday, I took stock of where I had been and what I was doing. By most people’s standards, I had had four successful careers, as a military pilot, astronaut, airline pilot, and airline exec, but I felt I had just completed my training. I wanted to start doing something that actually got people into space, and I wanted to start right away.
Three days later the phone rang. The first-generation astronaut who had promoted Share-Space into being was ready to step down. He wanted someone with more of a day-to-day business-and-management perspective to take over, because with seats opening on the shuttle, the job would move from promotion to operations. “And when we started looking for a person to replace me,” he said, “you seemed to have spent your life creating the perfect résumé for it.”
I said I would take the job.
Four days later, I moved into my office. Three weeks after that, it was official—ShareSpace would be able to buy some seats from ASU, and plaque space on Columbia. We were in real business, we had things to sell, and we needed to start selling them now.
I’m not proud of how I handled that at home. Thalia had just launched the Coalition for Effective Justice, a group to push her ideas for how to make the criminal justice and prison systems work more effectively, and she didn’t have much time. I can’t claim I didn’t know it would be a hard time for her-we had discussed it for more than a year before she made her move. But instead of supplying any stability, I suddenly grabbed a new job that was just as demanding as her new job, and dumped a load of new problems, issues, and crises into her lap and expected her to help out with them.
Probably a more sensitive man—or even one who thought about human relations at all—would have realized that it wasn’t a good thing to do that without at least some discussion with my wife. Whatever the reason, I just presented all the big changes to her as a. fait accompli, and expected that she would just adapt as she always had before.
With both of us launching new careers, the changes hit hard and fast. I had whole months living on yogurt, microwave burritos, and Big Macs, dashing out of the house early and getting home long after Amos was in bed, missing any appointment that wasn’t business, skipping any chance of a normal social life. Once, for nine straight days, I got home past midnight and left the house again at six. I was living on a round of flights and phone calls, trying to make sure nothing derailed getting Fred Gernsback into orbit. Meanwhile, Thalia was struggling to get foundation funding for the Coalition, and to manage the house and be, at least, more of a mother than I was a father. I think she did better than I did at almost everything, but I truly didn’t have the energy or attention to see it.
One reason why I was always so exhausted in those days was politics. I don’t know anybody who genuinely does anything for a living, whether it’s flying spacecraft or mopping floors, who has any use for politicians, and my first year at ShareSpace didn’t make me like them any better. Probably a quarter of the Senate, and maybe as much as a third of the House, were avowedly hostile to what we were doing. I was over on Capitol Hill or at various agency headquarters almost every day, trying to make sure that all the deals stayed done. Over and over, Congressman Brian “Bingo” Rasmussen and his gang were getting on C-SPAN with speeches that rang with phrases like “completely irresponsible use of national resources,” “putting civilians onto a barely controlled bomb,” “wasting die taxpayer’s dollar on toys for die rich,” and so forth.
Like any set of lies, it was built around a core of truth. Space travel if dangerous. It takes big quantities of energy to get to LEO and that energy has to be released fairly fast, and it can get out of control, as it did on Challenger. Space has hazards—vacuum, radiation, orbital collision—that have no equivalent on Earth. If enough heat shielding tiles were to peel off during re-entry, die shuttle could go from a billion-dollar marvel of technology to a tumbling shattered meteor before the crew could do anything to save themselves. The shuttle slams down onto die runway at a steep angle, and hits die pavement rolling about as fast as die race cars at Indy, and it lands powerless, so it can’t go around for another pass if something doesn’t look right.
But millions of people run risks every year, as part of daily life or even purely for recreation, that are far greater man those run by die shuttle crews. Skydivers, skiers, stock car racers, surfers, rock climbers, even just people driving on die freeway—all run bigger risks, and do it more often. I wasn’t kidnapping people onto the shuttle, nor were Citizen Observers taking seats away from any other, more important, purpose-those seats would have flown empty without ShareSpace.
The high price we charged for a seat, finally, was what won enough wavering congressmen and senators to our side, and made the Clinton/Gore administrators, who didn’t much like or care for anything connected with space, grudgingly accept it. ASU would get a high-paying customer—ShareSpace—and that would allow it to charge its government customer, NASA, a little less. On the whole, it looked like the taxpayers would come out ahead, and that was what mattered in the waning years of the Clinton Administration.
One day, I came out of one meeting, on my way to another three meetings, and Thalia was waiting for me. I stared at her, unsure what she could be doing here, afraid that perhaps Amos had been hurt.
She handed me a thick stack of papers, and when I looked down, I saw that she was petitioning for divorce. I looked back up at her impassive face, and couldn’t think of anything to say. I finally asked if she wanted to talk about anything, and she said she thought it would be better if we just let the lawyers handle everything.
I don’t know if it was better, but since she didn’t want to talk, that day or later, I didn’t see too many other options. I told the lawyer from Gordon and Gordon, the Blackstone family firm, to be generous and quibble about nothing. In turn, Thalia wasn’t asking for much except to get this too-busy stranger out of her house, so that her life could be less chaotic.
Of course I was miserable, but the same lack of time and space in my life that led to the divorce also gave me a way to get through the bad time. ShareSpace always needed something done, all the time. A growing company isn’t as warm and supportive as a family, but like a family it can consume nearly unlimited energy and much more time than you have. They say that being a workaholic is a hard addiction to shake because it’s the only addiction that improves your life, and that was certainly true in my case for many months. The only time I relaxed was during my visitation times with Amos, when I more or less forced myself to park the phone somewhere else and get away completely. At least it made me look forward to visitations.
After a while, Thalia and I started speaking to each other again, almost always about Amos, and usually not very kindly or happily. It was better than the terse, sullen way we’d communicated just after I moved out, but not much better.
As the van rolled into Silver Spring, and I yawned and stretched and wondered what it was like to go to bed without setting an alarm, I realized that no matter how things went, my workaholic days were going to be numbered, and that I was coming to the end of that grimly determined part of my life. In the business community, and particularly in aerospace, Share-Space was no longer regarded as a goofy start-up project doomed to failure, but as a serious venture with a known path of expansion. We would be staffing up substantially over the next few months, and there were now routine procedures for things that, a year ago, we’d still been making up case-by-case.
Every single step was not going to require the CEO’s intervention, and some time and regularity would come back into my life. I knew I wanted to spend more time with Amos, but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to do with a more conventional life. Maybe I should take a long vacation, or start a hobby, or try dating someone more seriously…perhaps I’d get some thinking done while I was down at the cabin with Amos, on the beach, ten days from now. Meanwhile, there was plenty to do. I picked up my cell phone, dialed my voice mail, and was rewarded with the phrase “Nineteen new messages. You last picked up messages at 10:50 P.M.” With a sigh for the clear, crisp sunny fall day rolling past the van’s windows, I got to work again.
Copyright ©2000 by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes