'Garth Trek' - one way to keep space station afloat in American minds

The International Space station has been launched, and the astronauts building it are doing a superb job. But the ultimate success of this massive mission is far from assured.

Maintaining public support could be trickier than any orbital docking maneuver. NASA has embarked on a long-term project at a time when the attention span of average Americans is smaller than a jar of Tang. And as each new shuttle flight blasts off with additional parts, the final price tag also heads skyward. How much should taxpayers spend for the Right Stuff? I suspect it won't be long before the pollsters give that question a test flight.

The crucial task facing space station administrators is to maximize citizen awareness while minimizing costs.

One solution is for NASA to join forces with the private sector, preferably a company that's in touch with current cultural attitudes and can use the information to devise effective marketing plans. The logical place to find such a partner is the entertainment industry.

If, for example, NBC were helping to plan shuttle flights, company officials would have known instantly that taking John Glenn back into orbit was all wrong from a demographic standpoint, since he appeals mostly to people over 55. TV executives are much more adept at targeting the crucial 18-to-35 age bracket. The space station can't succeed without the backing of the youth audience, since they'll be hearing so much about it for the next few years.

To keep this slice of society from getting bored, the next celebrity into space must be someone with guaranteed star power. I suggest Garth Brooks. He can provide a powerful link to middle America, and the vast dimensions of the space station would be a suitable venue for the first concert above Earth. NBC would make broadcasting history with the event. They could call it Garth Trek.

I also think it's time for NASA to start developing better artificial intelligence. Exploring the outer planets will be safer and cheaper with non- human pilots. I'm a robot guy, raised on Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and I'm no longer impressed by the mechanical singing animals at Chuck E Cheese. Is anything resembling R2D2 on the drawing boards?

Most important is the space program's need to set a clear direction. I remember reading an article in Life magazine around 1964 that explained and illustrated the planned missions for Gemini, Apollo, and the moon landings. Knowing how each project fit into the overall plan kept me fascinated throughout the decade.

I think Americans are still inspired by space exploration. But we have to know where the program is going; it can't be allowed to just float around in circles.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Monitor humor columnist, writes from Portland, Ore.

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