Crisis On Infinite Earls!

Though I try not to get hung up on it, my mind is really good about playing the what-if game: what had happened if the course of my life zigged – presumably for great justice – when, as we all know by now, it zagged with a vengeance. Sometimes it’s “what if I’d passed on the chili dogs at Sonic and eaten something else or, perhaps, nothing at all” (a not uncommon thought when I’m on bathroom trip #7 at two in the morning), sometimes it’s major life decisions, and the beauty of the human brain is that it can pierce the veil of the possible and imagine what didn’t happen. I sometimes wonder if, perhaps, we’re closer to being Douglas Adams’ “pan-dimensional beings” than anyone truly imagines. But every once in a while, one pauses to consider a cosmic “if… then” statement that defies imagining.

Anyone who’s ever read an “alternate history” novel knows that you have to choose a point of diversion from actual known history. This article from the always-fascinating Beyond Apollo blog by David S.F. Portree, hosted on Wired, presents such a point of diversion: what if Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, had been selected as a launch/landing site for the space shuttle program?

As unlikely as it sounds, it was, at least for a short while in 1971 or so, a possibility. As the article says:

…for a time in 1971-1972, a NASA board reviewed some 150 candidate Shuttle launch and landing sites in 40 of the 50 U.S. states. A few were NASA-selected candidates, but most were put forward by members of Congress, state and local politicians, and even private individuals.

Realistically, is there a good chance that Fort Chaffee – which is joined at the hip with my hometown, Fort Smith – would have hosted part of the shuttle program? Probably not. (Though it’s not completely far-fetched to the point of absurdity – did you know that all of the shuttles’ cargo bay doors were fabricated by a contractor in Tulsa?) And in any event, changes in the shuttle’s launch system and concerns over damage caused by sonic booms during launch and landing nixed most of the inland sites anyway.

But as I look at the somewhat depressed place Fort Smith has become now – and I mean that both economically and psychologically – I can’t even calculate what the benefits would have been to the area where I grew up. Even if Chaffee (not, incidentally, named for Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee) had only been a landing site (which seems most likely), the tourism alone would’ve boosted the local economy in the early days of the shuttle program. (Fayettewhere?) And even after the dropoff, when things became “routine”, I think it still would’ve had a beneficial effect. Local industries and vendors would’ve been contracted to take care of shuttle-specific needs, such as hazardous material disposal, and the effect on employment… I can’t even imagine.

And as for me?

Enterprise landingYeah, I would’ve been out there watching that thing land every chance I got. I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that it would’ve completely changed my life by exciting me enough to get onto a math/science/engineering track at school, but it would’ve boosted my space program fanboy-ism into a higher orbit. Actually, this would’ve been more exciting after the aforementioned “routine event” dropoff in interest – there might have been a chance to gain some real access to the inner workings, or maybe land a job related to the space program in some way.

Which is, from my vantage point in this universe, almost unthinkable in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The other Arkansas cadidate site, confirmed by the author for me on Twitter (the poor guy needs to go ahead and publish the list of sites in a future entry, just to head off the glut of people e-mailing and tweeting him with self-indulgent requests like I did!), was Blytheville AFB, closer to Memphis than to my side of the state.

Would my family still have made the drive to go watch shuttle landings? Oh yeah.

In that other universe.

One thought on “Crisis On Infinite Earls!”

  1. Sorry to be a downer Deb here but I don’t think life would have been as neat as you envisioned if Arkansas was chosen. This is coming from someone whose state was chosen for an alternate landing spot (White Sands). They did land a shuttle in White Sands one year (I forget the details) and my sister-in-law (my brother’s wife) got a job to work for the alternate site not long after the shuttle landed in White Sands. So she and my brother moved down to Las Cruces in preparation for the new job. And then NASA decided to close the site at White Sands. The big reason was money. They spent a buttload extra cash for that one shuttle landing in White Sands and they would have had to spend another buttload to send equipment to White Sands and upgrade the site for any future landings. Turns out the dry lake bed at Edwards worked just fine for their needs. Also, it turned out that Florida worked fine for nearly all of the shuttle landings that occurred so even Edwards was redundant as time went by.

    So, in conclusion, if we lived in that alternate universe where they picked Arkansas as an alternate site, you would have experienced the same heartbreak that I, my sister-in-law and my brother experienced when they closed White Sands. Sure, you would have the memory of watching a shuttle in Arkansas but you would also have the memory of neighbors and former co-workers losing their NASA jobs (unless they were able to transfer to a different NASA job). Today, in that alternate universe, the only reminder of Arkansas being an alternative landing spot would be some old signs and some abandoned NASA equipment.

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