See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight by Alan Ladwig
Quest Volume: 27 #4 (2020)
Several years ago, I interviewed Alan Ladwig in his office at NASA Headquarters while he was serving as the agency’s public outreach director as a political appointee of the Obama administration. My questions, though, were focused on the work he and others had performed at NASA stretching back more than three decades to create opportunities for the general public to participate in the Space Shuttle program. I was examining how NASA transformed public engagement in shifting from the Apollo to Shuttle eras for my doctoral dissertation research, and Alan was central to much of what I was investigating. At one point, he commented that he aspired to compile his experiences in a book one day. I am so glad he did because the story of ordinary people’s desire to reach for the stars, and his role in facilitating that quest, is ours to celebrate and enjoy in See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight.
Alan Ladwig has had a fascinating career. As a college student studying speech and then higher education at Southern Illinois University, a chance meeting with a visionary soul (USAF Colonel John Whiteside) awakened him to the possibilities of humanity’s long-range future in space. From that point forward he became a tireless advocate to enable all people to become meaningful contributors to the US space program. After serving as the president of a student organization focused on policy action in science and technology, he landed the first of a series of positions in NASA that permitted him to hack away at the “Right Stuff” culture within the storied agency so as to allow people outside of the realm of astronautics and space science to be part of the Space Shuttle program. Throughout the 1980s, he managed programs to fly not only student experiments but also “citizens”—people who did not hold the narrowly prescribed credentials NASA had hitherto sought for its astronaut corps—aboard the Shuttle. Ultimately his career included additional stints at NASA as a policy and outreach leader under various presidential administrations and at several private startups relating to space tourism and media services.
See You in Orbit? follows the historical arc of the question that has underscored Ladwig’s career passion: when will everyday people get a chance to fly into space? Employing humor and a good dose of self-styled irreverence, Ladwig puts forward not an academic treatment of the subject but a threading together of chronological events considering the possibility of space travel for the masses in an effort to gauge progress toward this dream of many. The book opens with modern rocketry emerging on three different continents in the first part of the 20th century, inspired by earlier fictional works by space exploration visionaries. As early as then, Ladwig recounts, individuals captivated with the idea of space travel penned letters to American rocket engineer Robert Goddard offering to support their projects as volunteer flyers despite considerable safety risks. The public’s fascination with spaceflight grew as planetariums and professional space societies popped up along with movies and books, all fueling the notion that the cosmos was increasingly within humanity’s reach. In sharing many public letters to newspapers and planetariums expressing a desire to soar into space, Ladwig argues that the promise of spaceflight hyped by visionaries, governments, news media, and private companies has been enticing for many and elusive for most, with the vast majority of dreamers still waiting nearly a century later for their rides to space.
After tracing the decision by US space program officials to select the earliest astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots, Ladwig explores the quest of individuals representing various groups to break into the elite club of space flyers during the 1950s and 1960s—scientists, women, and African Americans. He does a particularly thorough job examining the issues around aviatrix Jerrie Cobb’s pursuit of her spaceflight dream and the limitations she and other women endured in persuading NASA to allow them to enter the astronaut corps when women were restricted from military schools. The book devotes a few pages to the consideration for African Americans flying in the 1960s as well, although I expected more to be shared about African American attitudes toward human spaceflight, which on the whole were not very favorable due to more pressing issues facing them on Earth. There is also surprisingly little discussion of the role of NASA’s effusive public affairs office in shaping public views of the astronauts at the time and what limited opportunities for connecting with NASA and human space flight they afforded.
Any omissions in sharing the experiences of the public with human spaceflight in the Space Age’s early days, however, pale in comparison to Ladwig’s comprehensive depiction of how NASA’s treatment of the public began to change, albeit slowly and cautiously, in the 1970s and 1980s. A new class of vehicle capable of carrying more people to space for longer periods and in a more benign environment than the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules provided, the Space Shuttle held the potential to open space flight in ways not previously possible. Ladwig relates NASA’s experience in selecting its first Shuttle astronaut class, including six women and four racial and ethnic minorities among the 35 individuals chosen. He also offers a close look into the debates around creating new categories of flyers, beyond pilots, to include “mission specialists” to focus on logistics and scientific experiments as well as “payload specialists” to join Shuttle crews from corporations and foreign governments on their own dime.
Where Ladwig is at his finest is in relaying his firsthand experience to open the aperture even wider (to borrow his parlance) to allow a “citizen” to fly on the Shuttle via the Space Flight Participant Program he came to manage. NASA began to give the idea consideration in the mid-1970s, and Ladwig shares the details of the process to determine what sort of person should fly first—a celebrity? a photojournalist? a lottery ticket winner?—and the discussions among NASA personnel and advisors to make the decision, establish selection criteria, and what to call these voyagers. Ladwig offers glimpses into the countless letters that poured into the agency from individuals eager to take a flight (he rues that he was stuck with the unenviable job to send back rejection letters). Though two members of Congress pushed their way to fly sooner, a teacher was chosen to have the honor of being the first “space flight participant,” and Ladwig conveys with vivid feeling the process of selecting from among 11,000 applicants New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe to be the first educator to join a Shuttle crew. With equal passion, he relays the challenges to sustaining flights of ordinary people in space following the Challenger launch disaster that killed McAuliffe and her crewmates, tracing the long road involved in finally seeing through the flight of McAuliffe’s “back-up,” teacher Barbara Morgan, on a 2007 Shuttle mission.
Noting that NASA has not provided long-running flight opportunities for most people, the book wraps up with a review of alternative paths to space for enthusiasts. Ladwig recounts Russia’s arrangements for space tourists as well as the rise (and fall) of a litany of companies that have formed to fly hefty-sum-paying passengers to space. He ends on what I will call an optimistically uncertain note—that we have seen incremental progress in opening space but should not count on flights for the masses anytime soon. The dreamers may not like the reality of the situation, but Ladwig’s accessible book should provide enjoyment and lessons learned for them while they are waiting for their own ships to take off.
About the Book
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Title: See You In Orbit?: Our Dream Of Spaceflight
Author: Alan Ladwig
Publisher: To Orbit Productions
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