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.

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:

"We are infants leaving the womb of earth, and the important thing is how we respond to the birth pangs. We don't have the option of climbing back. Our gestation period -- our cosmic nine months -- is up. . . . Our little egg is cracked, and we're seeing the whole cosmos out there, and when the egg is cracked the chick doesn't take out the Elmer's glue and seal it back up.

"I consider myself an environmentalist in the larger sense, but many of my environmentalist friends view space as an anathema. Space exploration and NASA are all hightech, big-business, military centralization to them, populated by all the bogymen they all fear and hate. I don't see it that way and would carry the analogy of Earth mother a step further.

"We first begin to understand loving our mother afterm birth, not before. Before, we don't even know mother is mother. The knee-jerk reaction from some environmentalists is a fear of moving off Earth into space, because they think it means we're not interested in taking care of this planet. But in moving off Earth is our only hope of maintaining Earth as a life-enhancing environment."

With reports that the early missions of the space shuttle will be carrying into space military satellites and perhaps unmanned space stations with lasers and other sophisticated weapons aboard, Schweickart fears we are simply elevating the cold war to "higher ground."

"As we move into space we take with us what we are," he says. "And we are an interesting mixture of art and music and love and joy, and we are pain and sadness and despair and anger and fear.We are all of those things, and we take them from earth out into the universe with us. The question is: What are we going to emphasize? I fear we are moving off into this new space, leading with fear more than love, anger more than joy.

"I'm concerned that our civil space program is going downhill today, and the military program is moving ahead rapidly. I'm not antimilitary, and I do recognize there is a shadow side to us, and the military has a real function. It's a question of who is the servant and who is the master, and that's what concerns me about space."

Schweickart strides across the room and pulls a blue clothbound volume from his bookshelf. It is a history of the space program entitled "This New Ocean." He is searching for a speech President Kennedy delivered at Rice University. He thrusts an index finger into the spine of the book. "Kennedy said: 'We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won. Whether it will become a force of good or evil depends on us. . . . Space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeated mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.'"

He slams the book shut. "I have carried that statement in my soul since the day Kennedy said it."

In the hallway outside his office is a gallery of brilliant Voyager 1 color photographs of Saturn. They are interspersed with equally dramatic pictures of California's desert and coastline.

Schweickart is unquestionably proud of man's exploits in space and unabashedly surrounds himself with mementos of those adventures. He secures his necktie with the official NASA astronaut gold tie tack, signifying his membership in an exclusive club. The mug on his desk is emblazoned with a miniature reproduction of a newspaper's banner headline: MAN OF THE MOON. On a nearby table is a piece of the Apollo 9's heat shield with the inscription: "March 3-13, 1969, McDivitt, Scott, Schweickart."

"The Apollo 9 flight was shortly after the six-day war in the Middle East," he continues, leaning back with his hands cupped behind his head. "We would wake up in the morning about the time when the northern extremity of our orbit would be longitudinally over the Mideast, and while we were eating breakfast we would see Italy, and Greece and the Sinai, and Alexandria go by, and you would look out the window and think: 'There is the cradle of [our] civilization. . . .'

"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.

"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.

"We rip up the earth for coal, molybdenum, chromium, and steel, but space is saturated with energy and resources. Once you've paid the price of getting out of the earth's gravity, it's cheap to bring in asteroids, park them next to your orbital factory, and extract materials. If we don't get off the earth and start recognizing that space can provide these nutrients for the growth of this organism, then we are going to eat ourselves alive. . . ."

Initially, he comes across as the affable, redheaded "Aw, shucks" farm boy, but friends say he is thick-skinned and capable of defending himself in a town where a Brown appointee already has one strike against him.

He has built a reputation on sheer perspiration. He is a tireless worker who consistently forgets to take his vacations. Over the last several years he has developed a hard-hitting style of diplomacy that astounds the most wizened political veterans.

"Rusty can be tough but still incredibly diplomatic under circumstances which would drive most people to poke out the eyes of their enemies with sharp sticks, " a close friend says.

By training, Schweickart is a scientist. He has an MA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in aeronautics and astronautics, and he was one of the first of the civilian astronauts in the Apollo program. He was an Air Force fighter pilot but was not chosen from the bullpen of military test pilots that supplied most of the candidates in the astronaut program.

While many associated with NASA describe the space program as a time line of amazing engineering feats, Schweickart latches onto the sense of adventure and spirit of exploration. Whenever the subject comes up, he cocks back his head, and his blue eyes sparkle with imagination. If sitting down, he is likely to grab the arms of his chair as if preparing for blastoff. Soon his head is spinning with futuristic visions and the room almost seems to go orbital.

He impresses one as the old-fashioned guy who would like to get in a ship and sail out and see if the ocean really has an edge. He inspires the wacky sort of confidence that would make anyone feel comfortable getting into his spaceship and going to check out some far-flung corner of the universe.

What concerns Schweickart about the new space shuttle is, first, that it could become the primary property of professional astronauts rather than a diverse group of the venturesome and curious, and second, that the shuttle might become so routine and automated that astronauts would become glorified truck drivers. The gutsy guy looking for a little adventure could find working in a space colony no different from roughnecking on an oil platform in the North Sea or Prudhoe Bay.

"In the early days of the space shuttle program the idea was to make provisions for people to go up who were not professional astronauts. They might be graduate students or researchers, at first, and, eventually, the butcher, the baker. The shuttle will be a very useful tool, but the problem is that NASA is so tight on funding that everything has been sacrificed to the vehicle. We may end up with something like a delivery van that carries up satellites and kicks them out of the back of the truck into space."

When the price of the moving van is right, Americans and other earthlings will pull up stakes and begin homesteading space, the way the Western frontier was settled -- gradually, and by the most adventurous.

"First there will be the technicians who fix the communications satellites and public service platforms and auxiliary power systems," Schweickart says. "You'll have to build them barracks, and they are human beings, so they will have cooks, and kitchens, and movies -- like the North Slope of Alaska or a research facility in Antarctica. You will have the visiting scientists in space for six months, and they will bring their secretaries and the guys who fix the telephones.

"It will start off as a couple of houses and then a village and a town and a small city with a city council and a mayor. The space colony will produce products and services related to Earth, and Earth will dominate in terms of prices and access. The community in space will feel exploited and get angry, to the point that a town meeting is called; people don't want to put up with all this imperialist baloney from earth. They will vote to float a bond issue to invest in a propulsion system; they will hook it on the back and spiral into space, saying, 'Sayonara, Earth!'"

The strange thing, he adds, is that the mutineers will not be leaving home. They will take their home with them.By then, most of the residents will be third-generation space dwellers. Earth will have become a nice place to visit but you certainly wouldn't want to live there. For starters, the gravity is fierce.

"Ten or 20 years ago I always wondered," Schweickart says, "how we would ever get to the stars if Congress had to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars to send some group of people to the nearest star, when they couldn't possibly get there in time to report back to the congressmen's grandchildren, let alone within the same administration, so they could get political credit for it. But I realize that the way we're going to commit resources to space is that the resources are already going to be in place. It's going to be a decision made locally by the community in space and not a decision made on Earth."

For Schweickart, going into space is more than an opportunity to find a better dump to dispose of our garbage and a cheaper way to mine energy. He agrees with Freeman Dyson, the physicist and visonary thinker at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, that the world has a spiritual need for an open frontier and that the ultimate purpose of space travel is expansion of the spirit. "What expands our spirit is a larger vision and new horizons," Schweickart says.

"You're going to have all kinds of weekend Orville and Wilbur Wrights in space. Space colonies will be populated by bunches of sheet metal benders and clever people who are looking for recreation. And when they aren't gazing at the stars they will be building space motor scooters to fly around in, and developing new games like zero-gravity swimming pools, three-dimensional polo, and solar sails that weigh three pounds and are two acres in size, and you can use them to tack back and forth in space."

Now that the Apollo 9 astronaut is back on earth, how does he live out his sense of adventure?

"That's a part of me I have really neglected lately," he answers ruefully. He still flies light airplanes "as often as I can afford to with five kids and a government salary," and in a fit of daring has been known to take the family rafting down the torrential Stanislaus River at snowmelt. When he left NASA, Schweickart and his friend Stewart Brand, publisher of "The Next Whole Earth Catalog," entertained the idea of riding camels across the Sahara.

As skilled as Schweickart is at navigating his way through the thicket of Sacramento politics, he doesn't revel in the bureaucracy, and admits to missing opportunities to leave his desk and head out for the territory. Several years ago he and the family bicycled through Canada to Stewart Brand's cabin in Cape Breton, and Schweickart showed his true colors.

"Rusty can fix anything," Brand says."He would spend two hours taking apart a completely frapped-out, rusted-up spinning reel, make it work, and draw a crowd doing it. Someone would tell us they would like to loan us their boat to get out to an island, but it wasn't working. Rusty would have it running in a half-hour, and the owner would understand all about his engine when Rusty was finished."

That summer yielded, among other things, a Schweickart story that Stewart Brand still can't resist telling:

"We went out to this island called Wolf Island, which had been a lighthouse station. . . . Rusty found a way to go out and catch a whole bunch of mackerel. We wrapped the mackerel in tinfoil and were throwing them on the fire, watching the stars come out.

"Rusty was looking up and said, 'Ah there goes the first one.' We looked up and sure enough, there was a polar satellite heading north. Then his wife, Clare, looks up sort of wistfully and says, 'Gee, Rusty, you know I never did get out to see you when you were a star.' And my flesh crept. Because this guy munching mackerel next to me, in fact, was once a satellite all by himself. He was a star. And here I was thinking of him as a good fisherman."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today