The Longform Guide to Space
Sex, a celebrity astrophysicist, and the Columbia disaster—great stories about space.
Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s brand-new app.
Chronicling outer space presents a particular challenge. It’s not like any other beat: The sports writer attends the game, the political correspondent visits Capitol Hill. But fewer than 1,000 people have ever passed the 62-mile barrier separating our planet from space. Nevertheless, the celestial realm has been the basis for great non-fiction. Here’s a look at five stories, about a shuttle disaster, a celebrity astrophysicist, and, yes, sex.
Gregg Easterbrook • Washington Monthly • April 1980
The Columbia shuttle was to be a revolution for NASA. But a year before its first launch, the shuttle was several years behind schedule, had cost $1 billion, and wasn’t guaranteed to ever get off the ground.
“To truly grasp the challenge of building a space shuttle, think about its flight. The ship includes a 60-by-15-foot open space, narrow wings, and a large cabin where men must be provided that delicately slender range of temperatures and pressures they can endure. During ascent, the shuttle must withstand 3 Gs of stress--inertial drag equivalent to three times its own weight. While all five engines are screaming, there will be acoustic vibrations reaching 167 decibels, enough to kill an unprotected person. In orbit, the shuttle will drift through -250°F. vacuum, what engineers call the ’cold soak.’ It's cold enough to embrittle and shatter most materials. During reentry, the ship's skin goes from cold soak to 2,700°F., hot enough to transform many metals into Silly Putty. Then the shuttle must glide along, under control, at speeds up to Mach 25, three times faster than any other piloted aircraft has ever flown. After reentry, it cascades through the air without power; finally thunking down onto the runway at 220 m.p.h. The like-sized DC-9 lands, with power, at 130 m.p.h. Rockets are throwaway contraptions in part so that no one piece ever has to endure such a wild variety of conditions. The shuttle's design goal is to take this nightmare ride 100 times.”
Michael Behar • Outside • December 2006
Sex in space.
“By our 15th parabola, we're feeling increasingly queasy. Weightlessness induces a kind of seasickness. To shake off the nausea, I shut my eyes as the plane slides into another parabola, but with my eyes closed I can't tell which way is up. I might be pitching and rolling, or hovering motionless a few feet above the deck. My senses, on the other hand, are on overload. I'm hyperaware; touch, taste, sound, and smell are remarkably crisp and strangely amplified. My skin feels loose and relaxed. I hear the dull thuds of bodies flinging into walls and the whine of the engines tearing through rarefied air.
“In this condition, sex would probably be mind-blowing that is, if I could get within groping distance of my wife. G-Force One rises into another parabola, but before I can get to Ashley, a chubby Mensa dude with a knotty beard rams into my knees and sends me barreling like a bowling ball into a cluster of other passengers. I score a strike. Globs of water and M&Ms are dancing through the cabin. G-Force One climbs again, and this time Ashley throws her legs around my waist, clasping them tightly behind my back. Firmly entwined, I pull her head toward me, ramming my lips into hers like an overeager teenager. Technically, we kiss. But it's not pretty.”
Carl Zimmer • Playboy • January 2012
A profile of celebrity astrophysicist Neil Tyson.
“Tyson takes care not to oversell. If someone asks about string theory--the idea that all matter is ultimate made of multidimensional vibrations--he’s happy to talk about it, but he will also point out that it’s short on evidence. ‘The more your ideas are untestable, either in principle or in practice, the less useful they are to the advance of science,’ Tyson said. ‘It’s a seduction, really, and it's controlling the hiring in physics departments. Every department feels like they need a string theorist. Meanwhile, there are other people who are doing actual experimental physics, or have testable hypotheses that are getting aced out of university appointments.’
“Still, Tyson thought something important might someday come out of string theory. ‘They're pretty cheap to keep around. Pencil, pad, throw in a laptop--you’re done with the string theorist.’”
William Langewiesche • Atlantic • November 2003
The inside story of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and subsequent investigation.
“The blessing, if one can be found, is that the astronauts remained unaware until nearly the end. A home video shot on board and found in the wreckage documented the relaxed mood in the cockpit as the shuttle descended through the entry interface at 400,000 feet, at 7:44:09 Houston time, northwest of Hawaii. The astronauts were drinking water in anticipation of gravity's redistributive effect on their bodies. The Columbia was flying at the standard 40-degree nose-up angle, with its wings level, and still doing nearly 17,000 mph; outside, though the air was ultra-thin and dynamic pressures were very low, the aerodynamic surfaces were beginning to move in conjunction with the array of control jets, which were doing the main work of maintaining the shuttle's attitude, and would throughout the re-entry. The astronauts commented like sightseers as sheets of fiery plasma began to pass by the windows.”
New Republic • December 1968
An interview with Ralph Lapp, a member of the Apollo Project:
“If Apollo's main engine fails to fire in a lunar orbit, what happens?
“Our astronauts will be stranded in orbit.
“You mean they are condemned to death?
“Well, they can't get out and fix the engine. They are completely dependent on that engine firing. There is no backup there.
“There would be no hope of rescue?
“Not by us.”
Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.