Friday, May 27, 2011

Astromechs

As I pick the bits of grease from under my fingernails on a Monday morning, my thoughts turn from my own busted knuckles and mechanical tribulations to those of today's ultimate 'astromechs', the 'astronauts' aboard the space Shuttle.

To be clear, I have no intention of diminishing the glory of these brave and gifted individuals.  Though their professionalism makes going into space seem safe and perhaps even easy these days, we need only recall the Columbia and Challenger disasters to remember just how dangerous their undertaking inevitably is.  No matter what they are doing up there, these men and women clearly risk their lives with every breath they take in space (and on the rides up and down).  But their role has changed.  In many ways, it has actually transformed from a romantic role to a regular job.

It's no ordinary job, to be sure.  Astronauts, as those of us who have read/seen The Right Stuff will recall, are a very special breed.  But that breed is changing.  Even during the life of the space program, from Mercury through Apollo and on into the Space Shuttle era, we have seen this group--as a group--evolve.  They were originally fighter pilots, hard-drinking men with brass balls.  Now, though I would say that while still in possession of the requisite metal cojones (men and women alike) they are now more often like mechanics than pilots.

To be sure, these young men and women still have the right stuff.  It's just that the stuff has changed. If anything, these amazing people are even more amazing today than the first generation that Wolfe wrote about. They are still among the smartest, fastest and most driven people on the planet.

But now, even though many astronauts cannot pilot an airplane, they all have advanced degrees in something: engineering, physic, biology, nanotechnology.  They still perform science experiments while in space, but increasingly, instead of doing them for a team of scientists 'back home' they are themselves the lead investigators in the tests they conduct, and the data they gather is part of a career that will only begin with these couple of rides into space.  After their time is space, many of these astronauts will return to active research careers in the lab, not semi-public retirement on the links.

However, in spite of their advanced degrees, in order to advance to the further glory that awaits them on their return, while they are space, today's astronauts are often reduced--for want of a better word--to being astromechanics.  Their job, for several hours each day during a two-week mission, is to go outside with a set of tools and bolt and unbolt things.  They spend their days removing damaged/broken parts and exchanging them with new/rebuilt parts.

This is exactly what an earth-bound mechanic does, with the notable exception that an earthbound grease monkey like me doesn't have to worry about bolts frozen by space or concerned that a half-million dollar bag of tools might float away into interstellar space.  I certainly do not need more risk.  Even with gravity on my side, I've managed to lose plenty of my tools in much more conventional ways.

Grateful, too, am I for being at no more risk on a Sunday afternoon in my driveway than a busted knuckle or a blood blister on my fingertip.  Since I always find a way to hurt myself anyway with my little set of metal tools, I am thankful that the damage I can do to myself and the car is, at the end of the day, fairly limited.

Of course, there are many more differences between working on my little Karmann Ghia and the International Space Station, not the least of which is not having to face instant death with a careless mistake.  That's alright with me--master, as I am, of the careless mistake. No, I have no desire to work in space.

Oh well.  While these Astromechs are certainly smarter than me by half, there is one clear advantage I will always have over them--I can drink a beer (or two) while I work.  Cheers!

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