A block or so away from the main entrance of the Johnson Space Center, in Clear Lake City, is a McDonald’s whose exterior is crowned with a hovering fiberglass astronaut. The astronaut is thirteen feet high. His left arm is outstretched, and in his open hand he is holding an order of fries.
When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry on February 1, I was in the middle of writing a novel about astronauts and the people who train them, and this fast-food monument on NASA Road 1 had become for me a strangely important imaginative locus. The book, as I was beginning to understand it, was less about spaceflight than about the consequences of ambition, about the tension between the compulsion to voyage beyond the atmosphere and the normal human obligations owed to those who count on you to stay at home.
I had set a scene in this McDonald’s. One of my main characters, an astronaut who has not yet been assigned to her first mission, takes her six-year-old son there for a Happy Meal after he has suffered an asthma attack at school. As she watches her vulnerable child crawl through the restaurant’s playscape, chronic fears seep into her mind, and she finds herself helplessly thinking about another astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, whose death in the 1986 Challenger explosion left her children motherless. When I was writing the scene, Challenger was real enough in memory but no longer, at least for most of us, painfully raw; it seemed harmless enough to appropriate the tragedy as literary ballast for my character. But the immediacy of the Columbia disaster momentarily blew the walls off my fictional world and called into question the worth and seemliness of creating imaginary people in the shadow of so much flesh-and-blood suffering.
In coming to know those imaginary people, though, I had come to know a little about their real-life counterparts and the world they inhabit, a world that is at once distinguished by an exalted purpose without parallel in human history and grounded in homely workaday particulars. For me, it was the McDonald’s on NASA Road 1 that somehow best exemplified the gravitational pull of normal life in a company town whose business is sending people beyond the reach of gravity itself.
Clear Lake City, the world headquarters of manned spaceflight, is at first glance the world headquarters of nothing much. Along with a number of other communities—Friendswood, League City, Webster—with which it has indistinguishably merged, it marks the southeastern extremity of metropolitan Houston. You might find a “Watch for Alligators” sign or two poking up from the sluggish bayous that meander around the margins of Galveston Bay, but except for such tokens of primeval mystery, Clear Lake is a straightforward exurban landscape of strip malls and theme restaurants and Lasik surgery clinics. As for the Johnson Space Center itself, it seems proud not to be noticed. It’s a vast, sprawling hive with no apparent buzz. The only nod to its own wondrous history is a dutiful presentation, just inside the main gate, of the massive Saturn V rocket that once sent men to the moon. Otherwise, the JSC has the rambling acreage and the architecturally blank buildings of a hospital complex or a cheerless junior college.
Overall, Clear Lake City is an unassuming community into which astronauts are unobtrusively woven. They live on streets with names like Amber Knoll and Ardent Oak. They gather at well-known hangouts like the Outpost Tavern or Frenchie’s or Pe-Te’s but are just as likely to be in the cafeteria line at Luby’s or in the checkout aisle at Kroger. The woman cheering her kid from the sidelines of a soccer game might have come home two days ago from a mission that took her 250 miles above earth. On her bracelet she might be wearing a space shuttle charm from James Avery that her husband gave her before she went into quarantine. The polo shirts with the mission logo worn by her and her crew came from Lands’ End. In her children’s elementary school, hers is one of dozens of photographs in a hallway display titled “Astronaut Moms and Dads,” an extensive gallery of smiling men and women in orange pressure suits.
One of the sturdiest clichés about the shuttle program is that it represents a modern-day version of the passing of the frontier—that the more multifunctional, multicultural, and unprepossessing astronauts become, the further they are from some primal ideal laid down by that generation of squinty-eyed test pilots who rode the first rockets into space. But to anyone who has glanced at the biographical sketches of the Columbia crew—among whom were a submarine medical officer, a former circus acrobat, and an Israeli fighter pilot who fought in the Yom Kippur War and took part in a brazen attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor—this observation is tediously irrelevant. Astronauts are still members of an aristocracy of achievement, they still have a dazzling inner focus, and because they willingly confront dangers like being launched into space on top of a liquid hydrogen bomb containing 1.6 million pounds of explosive fuel, they are likely to have developed the enticing professional remoteness that we associate with stardom.
But spaceflight has changed in ways that have inevitably leached some of the glamour away. The shuttle is a vehicle less for exploratory voyaging than for near-shore exploitation of space. Its primary job these days is the servicing and maintenance of the International Space Station. Compared with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, the shuttle is more like a crew boat ferrying personnel and supplies to an offshore drilling platform. When those supplies are unloaded in the weightlessness of space, astronauts, like grocery stockers, keep track of the inventory with bar code readers. In orbit, they receive a per diem of just $2.
On the ground the reality is just as poignantly stark. In the weeks before the launch of the 1997 shuttle flight that would deliver him to the crumbling old Mir space