"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 January 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

What Goes Up



Carl Sagan certainly took his

lumps over the years. He was the

brunt of billions and billions

of lame jokes, all with the same

punch line. And we got in some

licks, too, as if he were some

kind of cosmic piñata. Even if

he was an alien spy, we admit

it's sad to see him go; no doubt

he looked up at the heavens so

often because he had such a hard

time finding local intelligence.

Well, at least he lived long

enough to see fossils from Mars,

water on the Moon, and Jack

Nicholson abducted by a bad




Sagan's dirty little secret, of

course, was that there isn't

much of anything in space - at

least the space within our

reach. It's generally accepted

that a vacuum isn't much use to

human beings unless it's inside

a light bulb or a Hoover. And

aside from the sobering reality

that there isn't any environment

in space, much less one for us

to exploit and destroy,

weightlessness leeches calcium

out of human bones, and weakens

the heart. Sagan's interest in

the deeper reaches of space,

both literal and figurative,

didn't preclude him from

consulting on just about every

major launch since Sputnik. But

even Sagan must have seen that

the few shards of junk we've

managed to blast into the cosmic

soup are constantly finding

their way back home again, in a

rain of high-tech fire and



Just last month, a portion of

Space Shuttle Challenger washed

up on the shores of Coco Beach,

Florida. While space junk

flotsam is about as common as

medical waste jetsam, this was a

little more disturbing. After

all, seven brave Americans lost

their lives on Challenger when

it exploded shortly after launch

11 years ago. Oh, the wounds

that never heal. But really,

what did we expect? That each

time we blast ourselves out of

Mother Earth's lap at 1200 miles

per hour, it'll come off without

a hitch? That the biggest

obstacle our space program has

to grapple with, besides paying

$600 for a ball-peen hammer, is

finding astronauts who can be

convincingly portrayed by Tom




We're not just being facetious.

Americans seem to be thoroughly

confused about what's on the

silver screen and what's in the

starry sky. Late last year, the

Smithsonian Institute announced

plans for an exhibit next fall

celebrating the 20th anniversary

of Star Wars (the George Lucas

movie, not the Ronald Reagan

delusion). Taking a cue from

their wildly successful Star

Trek exhibit three years ago,

the nation's most prestigious

museum and national archive is

becoming a repository for the

fantasies of Hollywood. To put a

point on this


development, "Star Wars: the

Magic of Myth" is being

underwritten by Bantam Books.

The exhibit, featuring props and

sets from the motion picture,

dressed up with captions from

multi-culti flight myths, is

profound in one respect: The

Smithsonian has caught on to a

serious tenet of marketing and

entertainment. Who cares what

the venerable institution's

obligations are to truth and

history? Americans are far more

interested in fantasy than

reality, and they've paid steep

admission prices to prove it.



It's quite possible with the

recent rash of extraterrestrial

excitement that we're in the

midst of a space-age

renaissance. With the

discoveries of slightly more

than nothing on the Moon and

Mars, Cape Canaveral is

beginning to look like rush hour

on The Jetsons. Who would have

guessed such simple findings

could resuscitate an

increasingly irrelevant,

excessive, and outdated space




Indeed, it's the scientific

community's occasional flair for

drama that really wins them

fans, breakfast cereal

endorsements, and

trillion-dollar budgets. While

credible star-gazers have long

pooh-poohed the probability of

alien life, they've never

shied away from hyping every

little datastream that

trickles in from the

exosphere. Of course, the

usefulness of our space program

has little to do with what is or

isn't waiting for us in the

heavens, and more to do with the

number of people it employs and

the size of the government

handout it justifies.



We're all for employment and

government handouts. With the

terrific boner Americans have

had for outer space ever since

the Russians beat us to it,

we've been riding the joystick

of high-tech paranoia and vanity

for decades now. We've spent

billions and billions to probe

the profound emptiness of our

immediate galactic neighborhood.

Still, we feel confident Dr.

Sagan would point out that the

payback has been religious.

Mythical, even. And that's not

all. Why, if you take into

account the licensing of Space

Ghost products alone, sure to

have a surge in popularity since

the untimely passing of Dr.

Sagan - well, we may be on the

verge of a windfall that'll

beggar the phrase "pennies from


courtesy of E.L. Skinner


E.L. Skinner