This material is provided as a public service to support the student Space Settlement Contest. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of NASA or any other government body.
Operating on the Edge
RUSSELL SWEICKART Talking
Jane McClure is 21, a biology student, the daughter of poet Michael McClure and newly, and ambivalently, excited about a career in space. So this summer (1977) she and I and a tape-recorder got together at my cottage with Rusty Sweickart then on loan from NASA to Governor Brown to help with "Space Day" (p. 146). At the time of the interview Rusty was in the process of making up his mind to stay on with Brown as his Advisor for Science and Technology for a year or two. Hurray
Jane McCLure: Did the idea of becoming an astronaut cross your mind when you were a young boy?
Rusty Schweickart: Well, I was born in the country, in New Jersey. We lived on a farm, and at that time it was really the outback. The road wasn't even paved. My mother and father and I and my sister would walk along, and chat back and forth, eat blackberries and look at the stars and the moon, listening to the night sounds.
My real two dreams were to become a pilot, especially a fighter pilot. I used to watch the airplanes over the house dogfighting, in mock combat. I would lie on my back and watch them fly around the clouds and chase each other. Then for some reason the other thing I wanted to be was a cowboy.
McClure: How old were you when you went away to school? Did you stay around New Jersey?
Schweickart: I graduated from high school when I was 16, and went from there to MIT.
McClure: Did you have a special interest in high school?
Schweickart: Yeah. I had a Chemcraft chemistry set when I was a kid. It was given to me for Christmas. I can remember clearing out an old farm house and making one dusty corner for my chemistry laboratory. I would sit up ther mixing my different color liquids and having em change and bubble off things, so I wanted to be a chemical engineer when I first went to MIT. Then I had one year of chemistry.
McClure: That changed your mind?
Schweickart: That changed my mind.
McClure: So what direction did you go after chemistry?
Schweickart: Well, I knew I liked engineering. Then my love for airplanes kind of took over and I went into aeronautical engineering.
McClure: Did you go into graduate work afterwards?
Schweickart: Well after I finished aeronautical engineering at MIT I went into the Air Force. I was in ROTC, so I was commissioned on graduation and was one of the first ones in the class to go on active duty in July of '56. I went through training in Georgia and Texas and all across the South where people learn to be Air Force pilots.
Stewart Brand: You went straight into jets?
Schweickart: In those days you went to propeller airplanes first no matter what your final destination was, and so I went through primary training in propeller airplanes in Georgia.
Brand: Was flying a natural or an acquired taste?
Schweickart: I took very naturally to it. I really loved it, from the beginning.
I remember when I was a little kid I would come home from school and turn on the radio, and listen to a whole series of 15-minute soaps - Tennessee Jordan, Superman, and Captain Midnight, Hop Harrigan and Tank Tinker
Brand: Jack Armstrong, all American boy?
Schweickart: Jack Armstrong the all American boy! Sure, and Tom Mix. Take a tip from Tom and go tell Mom, shredded Ralston can't be beat....They were great. I think it was the image of being that free in three dimensions - the kind of freedom that you have in a fighter plane where you're not just flying straight and level with cargo in the back but where you're free to move around. If you take that principle to its limit, it's weightlessness, where there's absolutely no restriction. Thre's no up, no down, the total spatial domain is open and there's no preferred reference or orientation. So that's a very interesting sequence, that what I saw and expressed as a kid led to space as the epitome.
Brand: When you were talking the other day you said that you got tossed around a lot as a child and that's what makes you comfortable with the idea of being in space.
McClure: Yeah. I like anything that takes me off the ground. Whether it's being thrown back and forth, or falling, jumping, carnival rides, anything. I won't get off them, just go round and round.
Schweickart: What's your earliest memory of the flying experience?
McClure: My father and his friend throwing me back and forth across the kitchen. I loved it! Those moments of weightlessness. Rusty, don't you get that for short periods in an airplane when it's flying a parabolic arc?
Schweickart: Yeah, in a fighter, if you put a pencil or something up on the dashboard and then push forward on the stick, you can just lift it off and keep it hanging there just by controlling the airplane. And that's exactly what you do in the big airplanes that we fly weightlessness trajectories in. Get going fast, pull up into about a 60 degree climb, and then the pilot pushes forward on a stick until the airplane's in weightlessness.
Brand: Sounds like it would flush your head.
Schweickart: It'll flush more than your head! They don't call it the "vomit comet" for nothing!
Brand: Do you get some washouts at that point in the training? Do people find they're just too unhappy in zero G?
Schweickart: No, because it doesn't necessarily correlate to what happens in space flight. We've had some people who get very sick in the C-135 and who haven't had any problem at all in space and vice-versa.
Brand: Was that you?
Schweickart: No, I tended to get a little sick in each.
McCIure : When you were talking about controlling the pencil in flight I suddenly related that to. . . All your life you're fighting for control whether it's of yourself, your surroundings, everything around you. They've found that it starts in newborn infants. They're always struggling for survival, for control. I was wondering when you're in the spacecraft, whether there's a sense of control of your destiny.
Schweickart: I think it's somewhat the other way.
McClure: You mean out of control?
Schweickart: Being close to being out of control, anyway. operating on the edge, where with a little bit of a slip on one side you can be out of control. It's interesting. What's attractive about that? Some people express it as a death wish, but to me that's far too simplistic an answer.
Brand: Is the use of space equipment as edgy as fighter planes or is that a whole different kind of discipline?
Schweickart: No. The normal day to day kinds of things are very safe. You go out of your way to minimize all risk, and you don't leave anything out near the edge. The suits and all of that are very very conservatively designed. You don't even ask questions about money when something regarding safety is evolved.
McClure: Where were you, and how old were you when you heard that NASA was hiring astronauts?
Schweickart: I was at MIT, in graduate school, finishing up my master's decree. I was doing research in atmospheric physics and flying in the Air National Guard. I guess I was around 27. Actually I was in the Air Force twice, because after I got out the first time I went in the Air National Guard when I was getting my advanced degree at MIT, and then the Berlin Wall went up and Kennedy activated the reserves and so we went back on active duty.
That was about '61, when John Glenn flew. I can still remember the morning when I heard on the radio that he'd made it into orbit. I was looking at it in the paper in a coffee shop in eastern France and thinking, that's where I'd like to go. It seemed to match with some rather deep vibrations inside.
Brand: What do you think inspires interest in space exploration today?
Schweickart: Well, O'Neill and all the things that he's doing. Of course the roots go back far before Gerry, but he's the input point for all the cosmic energy that's getting into the system right now.
McClure: He makes space settlement seem very feasible and exciting.
Schweickart: Is that how you got interested ?
McClure: Yeah, when I got through reading all his articles in CQ I thought, boy, this is really possible.
Schweickart: It'll all work out, that's the point. There are challenges but not impossibilities.
McClure: O'Neill oversimplifies it to make it sound exciting enough for people to really get interested in it, which is serving a real purpose, because I wanted to jump right in after reading his articles. But then I read something in your article which just turned my head around. Stewart asked you 'What are the mechanical problems in space?' and you said theoretically nothing. You explained that it's frictionless and they're having a little trouble figuring out how to oil things. But then you said that at the end of one of the flights an inertia wheel fell off.
Schweickart: It started to, actually one fell off and the second one was on its way out.
McClure: And you said they didn't understand how it happened.
Schweickart: Well, the covered wagons were okay, but there were Indians too. There were inherent problems of the environment.
Brand: What about safety, Jane. If it's hazardous in Space would you rather wait til it's not?
McClure: I don't know, for myself. There's many young people my age who would just do it.
Schweickart: It's very interesting when you ask this question. The yardstick that's held up by the people without it being asked directly is the safety aspect, whether they perceive it as being risky, or perceive it as being fun and the risk worth it. It's a very interesting response, and what it tells me is that if risk were not an issue then almost everybody would like to go out in space. And the risks aren't all that great in reality. If you compare the time you spend on an airplane, space travel is actually safer.
And as an astronaut, I would say the risk of my being killed in a car accident is greater than my risk of being killed as an astronaut. So it's the perceived risk that gets to people, it's not what the actual numbers are. When you really get into being an astronaut, you realize that just a tremendous effort, to the point where it drives you absolutely buggy, is put into safety.
Brand: Rusty was telling me the other day, Jane, about when things went wrong with Skylab and they had to jump 10 years ahead in the program to fix it They were doing things that they wouldn't have considered for years in order to make the thing fly.
Schweickart: Well, that's always the secret with anything in life. If you want to move forward into new territory, what you do is put yourself near that ragged edge, because that's where things are moving the fastest. If you're learning how to ski, the optimum learning rate is where you're not standing up all the way down the hill nor are you totally wiping out every time you stand up, but where you're right on that edge of being out of control but you're just barely in control. That's where you learn the most rapidly. If what you're interested in doing is learning, then what you do is place yourself in that kind of a situation.
Brand: Astronauts so far, are they people who love learning or love risk?
Schweicicart: If I look at the objective behavior of astronauts, what they do is spend a tremendous amount of time minimizing risk. So it's difficult to say that they love risk.
Brand: But they're in a situation where there's considerable risk to be minimized.
Schweickart: What they're doing is they're operating near the edge but in the safest possible way. You're operating responsibly near the ragged edge. Okay? I mean there are people who are way back from the edge in the society, who are living totally decadent lives. I mean decadent in the sense that they have died even though they are ultrasecure. It is their demand for security which has killed them, and they operate so far back into the middle that life becomes a uniform experience.
McClure: Another form of death.
Schweickart: Sure. Now, you talk about death wish. Well, where is the death wish expressed? Up near the edge or back in the middle? It's a life wish to me to go out in space. In whatever it is you're doing, there's a life wish. I mean you are placing yourself as a life form at the place where that life form is evolving the most rapidly and you are manifesting that desire, that tendency in life, willfully.
Brand: By the time NASA gets into hiring third and fourth generation astronauts, as they are now, what are the real selection principles? What do they look for, what do they discard?
Schweickart: It depends on what the perception of the requirements for the upcoming missions is. In the past you really could not afford to have anybody on board either Gemini or Apollo, or Skylab for that matter, who could not fly. There was always the chance that things could go wrong and anyone around would have to be able to bring the ship back. Now with the space shuttle coming up, it's quite clear that not everyone will have to learn how to fly, and in fact one of the three astronauts on board the space shuttle, the mission specialist, will very likely not know how to fly.
Brand: Recently NASA got 6000 astronaut applications. Out of that, what, 30 will be selected?
McClure: I read a clipping in the paper which said that most of the women who were interviewed were on the average aged 30. Here I am thinking about it at 21. Why is it that the average age came out to be about 30? Is it because more schooling is required.
Schweickart: What you want is someone who has a broad background. The mission specialist on a space shuttle flight will be overseeing the what you might call on-orbit operations. That is, the mission specialist is basically an assistant or passenger almost during the launch and during re-entry. But once you get on orbit and the operation begins, the mission specialist is pretty much in charge. If there are specialists who are researchers and just up on that specific flight to do whatever the research task is, the mission specialist will act as a kind of coordinator and communicator, to interface with the ground people and the vehicle and the support systems of the orbiter to get the job done. And because there may be a whole variety of things going on - biology research of medicine or astronomy or atmospheric physics or Earth resources research or communications research or all kinds of things - the mission specialist needs to be someone with a very broad background.
McClure: How many people would be able to be transported in a shuttle? How many people would the mission coordinator be responsible for?
Schweickart: Well, the vehicle can support up to 7 people. Three of them are the commander, the pilot, and the mission specialist. They would normally be the astronaut crew, and then you can have up to four payload specialists who are not astronauts.
McClure: So these 30 prospective people being chosen are going to be the mission specialists, is that the idea?
Schweickart: There are two groups. The mission specialists in one group and the pilot astronauts are the other group. And there'd be about 15 each in this present selection. Far and away the majority of applications came in for the mission specialist opportunity - that was over 6000. I don't know how many came in for the pilot astronaut but I would guess on the order of 500, something like that.
McClure: Not everyone has had pilot experience.
Schweickart: Sure, that's why in the past we haven't had any women or blacks, or Jews for that matter, in the program. The test pilot population is not a population where minorities have aspired. That's been pretty much a WASP activity.
Brand: With no sex or age discrimination now does that mean that you're permitting older and older astronauts with each group?
Schweickart: Yeah. Deke Slayton was 51 I think when he flew. I think we're obviously moving to the point where in the reasonable future anyone will be able to buy a ticket the same way you do on an airline. Now, I don't know exactly when that'll happen, but. . .
McClure: Honeymoon on the moon!
Schweickart: It'll happen, it'll happen. You can picture a space station with a small, part of it probably leased to hotel chain for very exotic tourists. There's not a substantial market there yet, but it'll happen.
Brand: Not much is said about the payload specialists. Where are they going to come from? Do they go through any kind of training? At what point do they come into the program? For someone who is interested in flying before the next hiring of astronauts, can they look at the payload specialists as a way in?
Schweickart: Well, we just talked about the fact that the mission specialists should be characterized by a broad experience background and especially experience in field operations as opposed to theoretical kinds of things. With the payload specialists, though, I think it's quite the opposite. The payload specialist is someone who might very well be quite vertical in interest and experience and in fact could even be quite theoretical or academically oriented. If we have, for example, ultraviolet telescopes on board, as we did on Skylab with the solar physics experiments, a really skilled theoretically oriented observer could extract a maximum from any one period in orbit.
Brand: You want someone with theory there who'd know what to look for.
Schweickart: And really understand what is unusual and what is not unusual, and capitalize on the what-is-not-expected aspects of the observation. That's the difference between the skilled scientific observer and the generalist.
Brand: I remember listening to the tapes of some of the earlier astronauts, gooning over everything they saw. I can imagine there was some frustration by geologists on the ground saying, "C'mon, forget about the scenery, all we're trying to find out about is those very hard-to-see fault zones."
Schweickart : Well, scientists often get lockjaw on something too. You know they'll develop this great fixation on what they think is very unusual and somebody who's not that familiar with styles in science says, "Hooo, isn't that interesting?" and it damn well is interesting. That's one of the differences between the manned and unmanned operations in exploration. When you deal with an unmanned thing you have to design it, of necessity, for what it is you want to see and what you want to seek and permit to interest you. The unmanned the remote controlled unit cannot present things to you which it was not designed to present. Whereas the human observer can totally redesign its input filters in real time, depending on the circumstances and that's what's so exciting.
McClure: You're comparing an unmanned craft to a narrow-minded scientist?
Schweickart: Well, to anything which is designed and then operates remotely. Although there are remote things which are now reprogrammable, the limits of the reprogramming are always inherently built into it, and are considerably less than the limits to programming of the live biological form of life.
Brand: Who was it on one of the early moon flights that noticed the flashes on their retina? And who figured out that it might be cosmic rays? Maybe you should explain to Jane what the experience was.
Schweickart: It must have been on either Apollo 10 or 11. In any case what was noticed was flashes of light when the eyes were closed and either getting ready to sleep or just resting. It may very well have been Buzz Aldrin, as a matter of fact, on Apollo 11. Anyway, it was noticed that there were light flashes and that they weren't just self-created. They began to watch these things and identified several different types, you know, streaks, starbursts.
McClure: There was an observer watching this objectively on someone else, or. . .?
Schweickart: No. Closing the eyes and watching it yourself, but you could tell whether it was in your right eye or your left eye and so you could sense the direction and type and things like that.
Brand: Was there any self-inquiry as to, "Am I seeing visions? Going crazy?"
Schweickart: Yeah. But after you watch it carefully for a while and decide it is worth it, you tap your friend on the shoulder and say, "Uh how bout closing your eyes and. . ."
McClure: ". . . telling me what you see. ."
Schweickart: ".. . if you don't see some flashes of light." And so it was done and confirmed. . .
Brand: How often did they occur?
Schweickart: Several a minute. The theory which has been tested on the ground and appears to be the legitimate one is: heavy cosmic ray particles come through the wall of the spacecraft and leave a track in the retina of the eye as they pass through, and this track releases radiation or stimulates direct triggering of the retinal nerves which then cause these perceived flashes of light. It had never been discovered before because the Van Allen belts protected you in lower Earth orbit from this phenomenon. ..
McClure: What's the Van Allen belt?
Schweickart: The Van Allen belts are the belts of radiation around the earth that are trapped there by the magnetic field of the Earth, and they form a kind of screen if you stay within them. A lot of particulate radiation, ionized radiation, is deflected away and doesn't penetrate the lower atmosphere. So we thought that they did not appear in lower Earth orbit, but then on Skylab we tested it and found out that, yeah, they really do. And so we started trying to correlate them with the South Atlantic anomaly which is a place near the polar regions where the Van Allen belt dips down closest to the Earth, and it turns out that in fact when you get near the polar regions you do have higher frequency of retinal stimulation.
Brand: If these things are going through your head enough to make a flash, are they going through your head enough to make damage?
Schweickart: Sure. But you and I and Jane are sitting here with things whistling through us and creating damage on a continual basis. It's just that they come in certain sizes and shapes when you sit down below the atmosphere and different sizes and shapes when you're up above. I think the rate of damage without any question is certainly higher above the atmosphere that it is below it. That's one of the functions of the atmosphere. ..
Brand: The Skylab crew was out for 84 days and they still seem to be getting around some way or another, I take it they weren't disabled by this.
Schweickart: Oh, no, it's a long way from being disabling.
Brand: So far, but what about with continuous habitation and exposure to solar flares?
Schweickart: Well, it's like being in Alabama or Mississippi or Missouri or somewhere. You can live there for a long time before a tornado gets you, but by god if a tornado comes over your house you'd better watch your tail. And if you have a strong solar flare, you know you better get to someplace where you can get some shielding. So you need to have a warning system and a shelter and head for it whenever the radiation exceeds a certain level.
Brand: Lead BVDs and a helmet or something?
Schweickart: You need some form of protection. So you can protect the whole environment or you can build storm cellars. Storm cellars are obviously a lot lighter because you don't have to survive there very long.
Brand: Is this being figured into the shuttle program? The guys out there, if they get a flare, they got what, 10 minutes, till they start getting bombarded?
Schweickart: The shuttle is I think fairly well shielded anyway. The primary potential damage from a solar flare is filtered out by the Van Allen belts, and the space shuttle will be operating below them. That hazard really becomes much more real when you get outside the protection of the belts.
Brand: What about these big antennas and solar power satellites? Aren't they going to be in geosynchronous orbit, with is 22,000 miles out?
Schweickart: They're outside the Van Allen belts. However the construction work may be done in a lower Earth orbit, you see, and then after you get the construction done, then you boost it up to high orbit The shuttle can do both. It's a very simple device. It's like a truck or a bus which is waiting for hire in 1980. It rams on a charter basis and you can buy a share in the flight. You may have your favorite satellite to do research, or provide some communication service, or whatever you want to do. You can buy a ride on the space shuttle and you're charged a pro rata share depending upon how much of the size, weight, and resources that you use. Because the payload bay is 15 feet in diameter and 60feet long, you carry a tremendous amount of equipment up there for a relatively low cost.
McClure: In the past, once a satellite has been orbited, it takes years for it to come down or sometimes not at all, depending on how it is launched?
Schweickart: And most importantly, the last time anybody can do anything with it is on the pad on the ground before launch. The most severe part of the lifetime of most satellites is the launch phase, the lift-off and the vibration during the trip into orbit. Once it's up there it's in a very benign, relatively constant environment. The space shuttle now allows you to run your checks and tests, and stroke it on the solar panels or whatever it needs, before you let it loose to do its job.
Brand: If the shuttle had been in existence at the time of the Skylab, would it have been a lot easier to fix the problems you had?
Schweickart: Yeah, because you could have gone up and rendezvoused with it and taken up special equipment and people.
Brand: How many shuttle flights will there be a year? Do we know?
Schweickart: No we don't know, but there are projections of traffic which are people's best guesses depending upon assumptions on how fast certain markets will build and that sort of thing. What are called mission models are generated which take into account the phasing of capability in terms of things like additional launch pads required by the fail of '83 or whatever. It depends on capability in terms of ground support, flight equipment, crews, and to some extent even the technological development schedules. To start with, I would say something like one flight every two or three weeks in 1981. About 1984 or '5 there would be a build-up to about one flight a week, or 50 to 60 missions per year.
McClure: That includes how many shuttles?
Schweickart: Eventually 5 orbiters. And they're shared by NASA and the Air Force.
Brand: They're built for 100 flights or so?
Brand: Okay, just looking at that, there's 5 orbiters each designed for 100 flights. That's 500 flights, with on board anything from 3 to 7 people-times 500 in one sense or another (plus certainly a lot of repeaters) that takes you to something on the order of 1000 people in space within the next decade.
Schweickart: Decade or a little more. Yeah.
Brand: People are going to start knowing people who know people in space.
Schweickart: That's right. To me one of the real turning points in the program is that soon you don't have to make flying in space your whole life. You can get into space in order to do whatever your thing is - astronomy, exobiology, advanced communications work, processing of new materials, research on crystal growth, or all sorts of things. People from many walks of life will now be flying in space and to me that's one of the most exciting parts of the program.
Brand: Jane may wind up in space without even trying.
Schweickart: That's why I tell people who are interested in specific sciences or specific activities and who at the same time are curious about space, that what they're doing is the best way to go. Don't try to be a mission specialist, that's silly. What you really want to do is take your thing - crystallography or whatever - and find who in the crystal research activities in space is doing the most advanced work, and go to work for that person in his or her research laboratory.
McClure: The thing with the space program, though, is that it doesn't seem at this point that there is much room for a biologically oriented scientist.
Schweickart: Well, I'm not sure. If you start thinking about the kind of knowledge base that's got to exist before anybody can reasonably commit to a space colony, you've got to have an extremely firm biology base. There's no way to get there without beginning to really seriously address the questions of biology in space, especially things like plant growth, germination processes, and the fundamental relationships between . . . .
McClure: I was thinking specifically of the shuttle.
Schweickart: But you've got to start that research on the space shuttle. That's the vehicle that you have to be using to enable you to do that research.
Brand: I understand that at the third NASA-Ames study group on space colonies going on now south of here, the largest population of anything in particular that they have is biologists.
Schweickart: To me that's one of the biggest challenges in space right now. The whole life process is going to be experiencing a change in one of the fundamental things which it's always had to live with, and evolve within, and that's a gravity field. Here there is for the first time an option to sustain life under less than 1 gravity. What will be the effect of that fundamental change on the evolution of life forms, nobody knows.
McClure: You could even get psychologists up there to watch the astronauts.
Schweickart: Well, that's nothing new.
McClure: When you were in the spacecraft, what were relations like with the people you were with? Did you not allow tensions up there because of the situation? How did you all get along?
Schweickart: I would suspect not very differently from the way people get along in any kind of operational situation. It's very clear that your survival depends upon your performance and the performance of the very limited number of people around you. There are tensions because your personality still exists and the other people's personalities still exist, and you have to account for them and you know them very well, but you know you're in a situation where you can't let the clashes between personalities -the differences and sensitivities - affect the behavior. You just avoid behavior which will stimulate defensive reactions on the part of the other person.
McClure: How do you think things would change if there was a woman on board? Do you think it would cause a great change in the way men would act with each other?
Schweickart: It depends so much on the people. In terms of people within the astronaut core I think you'll find very little change in behavior there, simply because you do so much simulation, so much work together, that whoever you are, you get past the point of the transitional behavior. I mean, I know you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and I've adapted to that. But in the case of the payload specialists, I think that's a different situation. There the challenge is not going to be the fact that the payload specialist may be a woman, it's going to be the fact that the payload specialist who has not been well integrated into the behavior of the rest of the crew.
Brand: How long do payload specialists train?
Schweickart: There's a kind of idealized image where we're going to minimize costs, and we'll sort of swoop down and pick whoever the local expert is off the street or out of the laboratory, slap their tail in the space shuttle, and off they go to do extraordinary research. In fact, I think we'll start out being quite conservative, and the first payload specialists will have to have a considerable amount of training.
Brand: Presumably as time goes on and you get more and more people in space who do or don't work out, your selection principles will get more refined.
Schweickart: You hope so.
Brand: You've not said much about that and I'm not sure that there's much to say yet.
Schweickart: Well, there isn't. Clearly the pilot-astronauts are people who are going to be faced with decisions where quick reactions are needed and where the actions that are taken reflect directly on everybody's safety. That's what happens during launch and reentry. On orbit you don't usually face those kinds of situations. I mean the only two things on orbit that you really worry about in that sense are fire and decompression. Other than that you don't usually have to react quickly.
Brand: Who's the mission commander? The mission specialist?
Schweickart: No, the commander.
Brand: The guy in the left front seat.
Schweickart: Yeah. It's like an aircraft carrier. The captain of a ship is the one in charge even though the Admiral may be on board. In terms of who runs the ship and does it or doesn't it turn right or whatever in an emergency situation it's the commander who decides.
Brand: What I hear is that all these things we're talking about, including space colonies, are basically vehicles in the sense that a ship is a vehicle. So the Star Trek image of a bridge, the commander, and the lieutenants, is really the mode you're talking about, even up to large space habitations. Someone has to be in charge.
Schweickart: Yeah, but that's true here on the ground. When you have a small town there is a mayor and the mayor is the captain of the community.
Brand: I don't think those are comparable. The vehicle I suspect Is quite different in the severity, maybe the clarity, of the focus that there's someone in charge and there's a hierarchy of relations. The mayor of a town can be a joke and often is, but the town can flourish splendidly with a joke mayor, but in a vehicle where decisions have to be made, whether it's an aircraft carrier or a space colony, you can't have a joke mayor, I don't think.
Schweickart: I suspect that's a problem of perceptions. I think, relatively speaking, you do have joke captains of ships. I haven't been in the Navy, but I'm certain that just because you're dealing with human nature that there are destroyer captains who are jokes, for example. And it's the executive officer and the other people around that person who permit that particular joke to survive.
Brand: Point taken. I guess what I'm looking at is, I'm trying to see some of the differences of a manufactured environment versus an evolved environment, where you can relax, pull over to the side of the road, and things'll balance out. In one sense or another in these manufactured environments at least until they get extremely large, you can't just relax and let things take care of themselves because they won't. You have schedules that have to be met, keeping the algae growing ....
Schweickart: I think the principle difference is the response time of the system. When you're dealing with something like a community on the Earth, or the whole Earth as a system, the ultimate consequence of any particular action may be many many generations in the realization. Whereas when you're hanging ten on a surfboard or when you're right on the edge of crashing down the side of a mountain coming down a most difficult slope skiing, the characteristic response time of the situation is totally different and your actions are immediately fed back to you in terms of results. That's a difference, but the principle is the same.
Brand: If you're saying that on the Earth it may take a catastrophe ten years to develop, where on a medium-sized space colony it might take a month to develop, still those differences are small differences....
Schweickart: No no no, they're not small. That's one of the most interesting things, that we will be evolving, living, interrelating, (I hesitate to say natural, but approaching natural) systems in space, where that feedback time is much shorter inherently and therefore the consequences of actions within living ecosystems becomes a much more immediate thing, and the nature of the responsibility of the human as part of an ecosystem comes home very clearly. That then translates back into the total planetary environment in terms of recognition of responsibility.
Brand: I think there's a flip going on here. On the planet's surface the ecosystems manage the people to a large degree, and here you're talking about a flip where the people are gonna have to manage ecosystems to a larger degree, and that may be paid back in better handling of the Earth, and better respect for the Earth, or whatever. But it's a really fundamentally different situation. It would seem to me that we're now talking about a much higher role of consciousness in biology. You can turn off the human consciousness of northern California, and things will naturally come to a better balance rather quickly. With these situations you're talking about, if you turn off the human consciousness you may wind up with just brown paste within a couple of months - the kind of brown paste that you find in terrariums after a while.
McClure: Scum. organic scum.
Schweickart: I think we're both really saying the same thing on different ends of the perceptual spectrum. I mean, there in the space environment it's so obvious that you're in control that you forget that you're really not in control. On the Earth you are so clearly out of control that you forget that you are in control. And in reality you're both. In all situations.
Brand: Amen, brother. So you speculate that experience with biology in space will make us better Earth dwellers?
Schweickart: Oh yeah.
McClure: I think it would. Any time you expand yourself and look at something from the outside it makes you appreciate what you've left behind.
Schweickart: Sure. It's part of Alan Watts' observation: "What is it I call me? I call me that which is within this membrane called my skin. However what's within this membrane that I call my skin is also that which is not within what is outside my skin." In other words I could play the reference either way. And I will in fact learn more about what's inside my skin if I understand what it is that's not outside my skin. We'll learn more about ourselves as human beings in studying the ground. We tend to focus on the figure.
Brand: So studying the ground of space we got the figure of the Earth?
Brand: What then is the ground of which space is the figure?
Schweickart: Life. I mean, it is life which perceives space.
Brand: Go on.
Schweickart: What is it that perceives or conceives of the universe? It's life, consciousness, awareness, or intelligence, or God. You can express it in many ways, but it is that which is the ground on which space or the universe is the figure.
Brand: In orbit, are you nearer my God to thee?
Schweickart: I think so, in the sense that your perception is certainly enlarged. And I would say the larger the perceptual context the nearer my God to thee.
Brand: No atheists in foxholes or in orbit?
Schweickart: You can fight it. If for some reason you want to fight it, it can be fought.
Brand: There's a wonderful Passage in C. S. Lewis somewhere about the light in space being the pure light of God's countenance, by contrast with the scuzzy stuff you find on the surface of planets.
Schweickart: Well, that's an easy image to understand. On the Earth or on the surface of any planet, a good portion of the light is reflected, either from the atmosphere or from the solid surface. Whereas in space, especially when you're outside the spacecraft, the source of the light is very very clear. It's not quite a point because our local star is close enough that it's an extended object, but it's very clear that that's where the light is coming from, and the background is totally black, and yet it's bright, I mean. . .
Brand: Beg pardon?
Schweickart: Well, the fact is that the sun is shining through that blackness, and that any time you want to look at something it's very bright because what you want to look at is reflecting the sunlight.
Brand: Is the shadow side extremely dark also then?
Schweickart: Well, the shadow side is very dark if there is no local surface reflection on it, like the Earth's surface. If you're in the shadow you are cold, and when you are in sunlight, you are very warm. So the source of energy, of the fundamental driving energy which runs everthing is very clear.
Brand: Like being near the campfire on a cold night.
Schweickart: That s right.
Brand: So you continually baste yourself.
Schweickart: Round and round.
Brand: Well that's news. I haven't heard that from anyone. Has everyone who's been in orbit had some perception of that experience?
Schweickart: I don't really know, but I think the experience is there.
Brand: Most journalistic pursuit has been, "What did you learn about the Earth?" "Well, it's this gorgeous precious jewel, especially when seen from a great distance. It's home, it's whole, it's holy, it's all these good things."
Very few people have talked about the Sun.
There's something else no one will talk about. War in Space. How about that, amigo? Will we have Star wars in near-Earth orbit?
Schweickart: I don't know about near-Earth orbit, but there's no question it'll happen. That's only a matter of time. We carry the human spirit wherever we go. I think that's the kind of gut reason that some people react against the space program - the feeling that here is a pristine environment and we can't take the present fallible human character up there. We've got to perfect ourselves before we enter this new domain.
That's not the way life works. I hesitate to say it, but it's a kind of idealistic messianic vision that we will perfect ourselves, and then move out into this new and sacred environment. It's moving out that, to me, is an integral part of the process of moving more toward responsibility. Not the other way around.
Brand: They're saying responsibility first, travel later; you're saying travel first, responsibility later.
Schweickart: I'm saying that the two are interlocked. The life experience is part of the process of moving toward understanding which is the foundation of responsibility.
McClure: Rusty, are you going to fly again? In Space?
Schweickart: I'd love to. I don't think that it's in the cards in the immediate future because I'll be working here in California. But I certainly don't perceive that my chances of flying again have been shut off at all.
McClure: I was just wondering personally if you would like to?
Schweickart: Very much.
Schweickart: It's still the place in the physical environment where life is headed. It's the evolutionary path.
And at the moment I'm interested in affecting the perception that Space is an element of the cutting edge. But I would like to cycle back to where instead of operating on that perception within the public, what I'm doing is operating on myself.
Brand: How could someone interested in going into Space, find out what we know so far about Space. Where do they go? Are there three really good books about being an astronaut? Or the history of the Space program? What are the magazines you read to stay current?
Schweickart: I think the best book that's been written on the surface level of the astronaut experience, is clearly Mike Collins' book, Carrying the Fire.
Brand: Also the Mike Collins Museum.
Schweickart: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington that he directs, sure. In terms of what's actually happening with the nuts and bolts, the two mass magazines are Aviation Week, which is sort of a trade journal, and Astronautics and Aeronautics, which is a publication of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 9 see p.128). Those are very technical. Now, in terms of the conceptual, there's another book which is very interesting, though I don't think it's "a good book", it's called The Fourth Kingdom by Carl Sauber - It deals with the whole concept of life emerging from the womb in a sense - the fourth kingdom being the synthesis of the human and the machine, and this permitting an evolutionary move into a new physical environment.
Brand: Most of the environmentalist types, and maybe myself included, would be sort of appalled by that, but you're not appalled by that thought, by the thought of real symbiosis with the machine.
Schweickart: No. I've lived it. I've had relationships with machines which are just pure things, they're just beautiful. And others which are pure horror. But there are relationships where you and a machine are integrated through good design in a relationship which approaches those, you know, precious moments of fulfillment. You and that machine can perform actions or can enter into a space which is very high.
Brand: Can you afford an example?
Schweickart: Certainly there are examples in music, where the instrument played by the musician becomes a higher form.
Brand: You're being abstract. I wanted an example of yours.
Schweickart: Well, it happens that the computer on board the Apollo spacecraft in both the command module and the lunar module were two versions of the same computer. They were almost like twins of a family. We had to evolve the programs within the computer which permit you to solve the equations of rendezvous, entry, abort during launch, or navigation programs. And the interaction between you, the human observer-controller, and the machine - the telescope, the sextant, the attitude control jets, the main engine for thrusting, the orientation of the whole vehicle in Space or with respect to the Earth, the pointing of the antennas - these things are all part of the programs of the computer, and you control then that total organism. In a sense you are the command module, through interface and conversation with that computer.
And it speaks to you in terms of nouns and verbs. If for example you wanted to maneuver to an altitude which would allow the telescope to point at Canopus, to align the guidance system, you would call the computer awake by verb 50 noun 25 which would say, "Please perform the following program," and then it would say, 'Which program would you like?" And I would say "The alignment program." And it would say, "Okay, which option within the alignment program?" And I would say, "The one that establishes a new Earth reference," Then it does some operations and it comes back and it says, "Which reference would you like? The local vertical one or the one perpendicular to the orbit plane?" And I'd say, "What are the angles?" And it says, "The angles are the following, a, b, and c." And I say, "okay, go ahead and maneuver:' And it says, "Do you like the present rate at which I apply the maneuver?". And I'd say, "No, I'd like to save a little fuel so slow it down to a slightly slower rate." And it says, "okay. Is this rate all right?". And I say, "Fine, proceed." And it then fires the jets just the right amount so that the vehicle begins to maneuver over to the new attitude. When it gets there it says, "okay, we've arrived, do you want to proceed to pointing the sextant at the star?" And I say, "Yes", and it slews the sextant over to Canopus or where it thinks Canopus is and it says, "Please sight on the star." So I look through the sextant and. . .
Brand: Finally you do something.
Schweickart: Sure. Because it asks you to please mark on the star. So it has placed the sextant toward the star as well as it can. And it's the error now with which it does that, that I want to remove from its memory. So I look through the sextant and Canopus is there but it's slightly off the center, so I ask for manual control and then I move the hand controller so that the sextant points exactly at Canopus and I press a "mark" button and it says "Thank you, now go to the second star." And I say, "What stars do I have to choose from?" And it says, "Here are three within the pointing capability with this attitude." And I say, "okay point toward Sirius," and it says "Okay 'and it slews the sextant over to Sirius. Now it says, "okay, please mark on Sirius." And I look through the sextant and I see it's also slightly off and I say, "Let me have manual control again," and it gives me manual control and it says, "Please mark when you've got it in the middle." I get it in the middle and I push the mark button, and it says "Thank you, here's the correction that's brought about by those marks. Does it sound reasonable?" And I look at it and if it said 45 degrees I'd say No! But if it says 2 arc minutes error in its basic reference system I'd say, "Yeah, that sounds like that was a reasonable error that we just corrected. Go ahead and torque the gyros over to the new attitude" It says, "okay," and it does that. It says "Would you like to check some other star to make sure it's right now?" And I say, "Sure, I'd like to check." So now I say, "Point toward Rigel" And it says, "okay," and it points toward Rigel and I look and sure enough there' Rigel right in the middle of the sextant with no error because it's now been corrected. It says, "Is it okay?" And I say, "Yeah, it's okay:' And it says "Good, I'll record it permanently and it goes Vffft! and goes back to sleep. And now I've got a new reference system.
That's the kind of conversational flow back and forth with a computer. At first you're talking with a computer, but as you go through hours and hours of training with it and operating it under all kinds of different circumstances, you develop a relationship where you know the kinds of questions it's going to be asking you and the kinds of information that looks reasonable and doesn't look reasonable, and it becomes a process of which you are a part and the computer is a part and when you're really in operating mode, really functioning, you're not conscious of which is you and which is it. You are together doing something.
Brand: So you have visited the fourth kingdom and you like it.
McClure: I've had some experience like that just on a minor level. I put off physics and chemistry an infinite amount of time. I mean when you're a biology major that's the first thing you take, right? That's the last thing I've taken at the last possible minute. At first I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn't do it, I couldn't understand it, the concepts were too abstract. Now I have an excellent physics professor and I have a calculator. I'm not problem solving now, I don't have to worry about whether I added right or subtracted right. I have this machine.
Schweickart: Right. There it is.
McClure: So now I'm able, instead of spending all my time figuring out the math, to understand concepts that I did not understand before. My physics teacher said, "I don't mind teaching math to young kids anymore, they have calculators and they can depend on them. I love teaching children new mathematical concepts I would have never attempted before." And here I am, a college level student, and there's a whole new realm opening up for me because of this little love affair that I'm having with my calculator. I'm in control, I'm setting up the equation. It's just solving it. So I don't feel that I'm not learning or something's being taken away from me. I feel like it's kind of an interaction.
Schweickart: It stops being "that thing" and it becomes part of you.
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Curator: Al Globus
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