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DAWN OF THE 'PEOPLED SPACE AGE'

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981



Sacramento, Calif.

The inaugural flight of the space shuttle -- that orbital moving van that will soon be trucking all manner of satellites, floating factories, and prefab space colonies beyond the stratosphere -- has opened an era that some are calling the "peopled space age." By the turn of the century, they say, getting on one of those freighters headed for space will be no more novel than flying from New York to the West Coast.

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Some go so far as to proclaim that the sooner we passengers on Spaceship Earth become a planet of astronauts and get off this globe, the better our chance of saving our precious little garden in the universe. Preposterous? Far-fetched?Talk to Rusty Schweickart, a man who knows whereof he orbits.

Russell L. Schweickart is the freckle-faced New Jersey farm kid turned Apollo 9 astronaut turned born-again environmentalist, who made history in March 1979, when he stepped off the "front porch" of Gumdrop, the orbiting Apollo command module, and floated free, without an umbilical cord, in that sparkling vacuum between Earth and the universe. Sustained only by his oxygen-supplying backpack , he flew 200 miles above the earth's surface at 17,000 miles an hour, to become literally the world's "first human spaceship."

The experience of orbiting his home planet 151 times, taking in 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets a day, having breakfast over North Africa and dinner over Perth, Australia, dramatically changed the way he looked at his life and at the world.

"I recognized that I was one of the first pieces of humanity who was moving out and away from this mother Earth that had borne us and nurtured us," Schweickart said recently. "I asked myself: How did I get here? What does this mean? Who am I?

"I thought of myself at that particular moment on that particular frontier as a sensing element for all humanity. I was a self-aware being looking back at Earth, a self-aware, fragile organism. That recognition transformed my relationship to the planet which held everything which was familiar and precious to me."

Apollo 9 was a mind-boggling ride that sparked in Rusty Schweickart a newfound respect for and responsibility to the earth. In 1977, he left his NASA job in Washington and gave up a chance to pilot the space shuttle to take a job as science adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown in California, "the space state." (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has three research centers in California, and the agency spends 43.5 percent of its budget in the state which built the space shuttle. Florida is a distant second, with 10.1 percent of NASA procurements.)

Two years ago, Governor Brown appointed Schweickart to California's Energy Commission; he is now that body's chairman, a position as influential as it is politically precarious.

On the outskirts of Sacramento in a modern two-story office building that appears to be a cross between a bunker and a mall of dentists' offices, California's new energy chief holds court. Miles from the downtown State Capitol, he remains at the center of controversy. Step into his lobby and it becomes readily apparent this is not the headquarters of any gas-guzzling, strip-mining, oil-drilling, radioactive apologist for the energy industry.

In the far corner is the trash can, imprinted with large letters that read: "STOP. WHITE OFFICE PAPER ONLY. Project recycle." On Schweickart's office door is a NASA satellite photograph of Earth, taken the day Hurricane Allen was pinwheeling off the Texas coast. Seeing the bigger picture has become a habit of the man in this office.

Schweickart stands taller than one would expect of someone who once made a profession of inhabiting cramped space capsules. He has a boyish, athletic look , accentuated by his curly, strawberry-blond hair and black cowboy boots. His trousers, plaid shirt, striped tie, and herringbone tweed jacket meet at waist level in a screeching four-way color clash. Haute couture is the last thing on his mind. Today he has more important issues to think about: the militarization of space, problems with the shuttle, the dangers of nuclear power, the promise of space colonies, and the world's spiritual need for a new frontier.

He speaks slowly and pensively, punctuating his sentences with long silences. Pondering the significance of "the second space age," his voice grows passionate , and his hands begin sweeping the air as if he were conducting an imaginary orchestra: