DAWN OF THE 'PEOPLED SPACE AGE'
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"But the recognition of that with the intellectual knowledge that there are people down there killing one another over a border I can't even see, just didn't make sense. From space it looks like a piece of land and water, and those invisible lines people are battling over don't exist to us. So there we were, human beings, looking out of this machine man invented, and seeing, on the one hand, the spectacular beauty of the organism and, on the other hand, how fragile it is in terms of clashes between human beings and the carrying capacity of its resources.Skip to next paragraph
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"When my friends later went to the moon, they could literally look back at Earth and put it under their thumb," Schweickart says, grinning. He closes one eye and stretches out his arm toward the wall, eyeballing his thumb the way a painter sizes up the proportions of a subject for his canvas. Schweickart, however, is using his thumb to block a photograph of Saturn on his far wall.
"Saturn's about the right size from here," he says. "That's just about what Earth would have looked like from the moon. Those guys could hold up their thumb, and underneath it was everything that was precious and familiar. To our knowledge there is no other life than what was under their thumb; the rest is all vacuum and rock in space. . . . To me that says it is precious and that I am a self-aware being, and Earth is a self-aware organism, and somehow I have an important relationship and responsibility to it. And it is that larger responsibility that underlies my trying to deal with energy from day to day in California."
After you've climbed the mountain and seen the horizon, you have to go back down to the valley and struggle through the underbrush. How has Schweickart integrated his extraterrestrial epiphany into the humdrum of daily life?
"I don't walk around with my head in the clouds. If anything, my problem now is, I spend too much time with my nose in the mud," he confesses. "Look at my desk." He gestures to a glacier of reports and papers. "I've got eight inches of work piled up, 50 telephone calls to answer, and I'm behind schedule. I'm wrestling with the Legislature, working out my relationship with my family and parents. And my car still breaks down, just like anybody else's on earth."
The subject turns to how he left NASA in 1977 and came to help Governor Brown tangle with California's awesome bureaucracy: "I never decided at some point I wanted to be the energy chief of California. Jerry Brown asked me to come out, and I had to decide whether I wanted to fly on the space shuttle or work in California.
"The reason I said yes is [that] energy is where we have the greatest potential for trashing the Earth and the greatest challenge to survival. America is the trend-setter in terms of energy, and California is the laboratory. This is the cutting edge . . . a chance for me to make the real world mesh with the philosophical issues I thought about [in space]. California is where the environmental movement started, and it's out front in terms of conservation, appliance efficiency, building standards, and the development of alternative renewal resources. It's also where the wrestling and questioning over nuclear power has come up."
Nuclear power is a hot issue in California, and the former astronaut believes that the industry should take its cue from NASA, which devoted the most of the astronauts' training to coping with mishaps in space. "The president's Kemeny Commission report on Three Mile Island actually pointed out NASA's experience as an analogy to what should be happening in the nuclear industry but is not." Instead, except for a slightly greater emphasis on training, the industry has taken a defensive posture. "The industry isn't much safer because of [Three Mile Island]."
"I don't have any religious beliefs about nuclear power being inherently God-given, good, or bad. It's one option among many, and if it can meet the criteria of safety, costs, and environmental responsibility, I have no problem with it. . . ."
Personally, Schweickart thinks we are mudding around in an "energy crisis" because we've got our heads in the sand. The earth is awash in energy: According to his back-of-the-envelope calculations, all our energy needs and more could be met by harnessing an infinitesimal amount of the solar energy that zips past the earth. "And as we sit in this almost infinite column of energy, we moan and groan and burn coal and create acid rain and generate nuclear waste and wring our hands over the energy crisis.