Memorial Day weekend is a time to get away from it all -- from work, from household responsibilities and from Orlando's city limits. But those of us who chose to visit the Kennedy Space Center over the holiday went where no man has gone before.
From Saturday to Monday, the center hosted "Space Days 2000," a symposium that was keyed to the most burning questions in interstellar exploration: Are there intelligent beings on other planets? How will we locate them? (And will they please take Björk back home?)
"Space Days" was a refinement of the center's annual "Space Week" promotional ritual, but the sky-watching theme allowed its usual lineup of astronauts and scientists to be augmented by special guests who were more likely to bring out the couch potatoes. Saturday's schedule boasted appearances by William B. Davis -- who plays the evil Cigarette Smoking Man on TV's "The X-Files" -- and Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura of "Star Trek" fame.
Early in the afternoon, Davis strode to a podium inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center educational facility. Dressed in his character's trademark suit and tie, but clutching a water bottle instead of a Marlboro, he offered the modestly sized weekend crowd a stunner of a greeting.
"I could talk about evolutionary biology and why there's no life out there," he said, his eyes glinting with mischief. "But I won't do that."
The event's preconceptions already dashed, Davis spoke for less than five minutes before opening the floor to questions. Most came from X-philes eager to learn what plot developments lay in store next season, but the actor disavowed any knowledge. You don't ask the tight-lipped Cancer Man to spill any beans.
Down to Earth
X-Files fans must be smarter than the average TV junkies, because no one asked Davis his opinions of Area 51, Hangar 18 or any of the other hot-button issues so important to the alien-seeking sect. They clearly recognized that he was just an actor, not an expert. The major exception: a fellow seated right in front of me.
"Do you think Chris Carter got the idea for your character from some actual guy in the government?" he probed, practically drooling on himself in excitement.
Davis politely sidestepped the theory by stating that the show's creator was "sort of a conspiracy buff." No wonder he's in demand for personal appearances; my answer would probably have incorporated the phrase "a nut like you."
Davis shuffled off to sign autographs, and an announcer hailed the arrival of "Nichelle Nicholas, Lt. Oahu!" Ah yes, the Hawaiian presence on the Enterprise.
Looking ill-prepared to eat poi in her smart, milky-white pantsuit, Nichols spoke with a charm and comfort that revealed her as a seasoned veteran of the public-speaking circuit. She had most of the audience in the palm of her hand, even though she opened her commentary with an extended, forehead-scratching assertion of her newfound love of gardening. Nichols eventually got around to discussing her decades of service to NASA, to whose ranks she has helped recruit scores of female and minority trainees. If invited, she said, she would join a shuttle crew "in a New York heartbeat."
When her conversation circled back to gardening, families on either side of me stood up and walked off in bewilderment.
Juicier topics were tackled in a Monday lecture by Dr. Seth Shostak, a public program scientist in the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project. Shostak's job is to scan microwave frequencies for alien signals, a task whose rigors were illustrated in his slide-show presentation: One photo captured him grasping a coffee cup and staring away from his receiving station in boredom.
Shostak was indeed a card, and his talk brimmed with winning sarcasm. He debunked the feasibility of intergalactic travel (calling an estimated 70,000-year journey a long time to spend "with your seat back and your tray table in the fully upright position" ) and discredited the idea that some deep-space "Senator Zork" was responsible for the fabled crop circles. He also decried the "subcontractor hardware" that falls off spacecraft, and referred to the detail-hungry types in the audience as "propeller-heads."
Politicians, he assured, would never be able to quell evidence of contact between our world and another: Even false alarms are jumped on by the newspapers before the government takes notice. (Pay me, and I'll tell you what I know.)
SETI, we learned, lost all government funding in 1993; Shostak's Project Phoenix division depends on private contributions to continue its endeavors. One is the construction of 700 to 800 backyard satellite dishes that will improve our chances to pick up "E.T.'s faint whine" -- a transmission Shostak sees us stumbling onto within the next 10 years.
I can't think of anyone I'd rather have on our end of the line when the call comes in. Then he can sit bolt upright behind his console and slay the room by exclaiming, "There's a funny noise coming out of Uranus!" Labor Day is just around the corner; why not give Jerry Lewis a pass this time and write a check to this Shecky Sagan instead?