CYBERPUNK: Survivor, in Space?

Would you let a ratings-desperate TV network slingshot you 250 miles straight up out of the atmosphere to live on an unsafe Russian space station? I know I would.

Seriously. I'm surprised anyone wouldn't.

Not that anyone's handing out free passes for a ride on Russia's notorious Mir spacecraft. In fact, there are plans to de-orbit the aging 120-ton vessel. "Right now we are at such a stage in the operation of Mir that any of its systems could well fail at any time," Yuri Koptev, the general director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, told If all goes as scheduled, the 14-year-old craft will be knocked out of orbit and plunge into Pacific Ocean in February.

Regardless, the Amsterdam-based MirCorp hopes to lease space on the station for use as the ultimate tourist destination. The company is petitioning the Russian government to leave the craft up, with the promise that the revenue it brings in will defray at least part of the cost of keeping Mir afloat. Its first customer, an ex-NASA engineer named Dennis Tito, paid $20 million for a visit. Also, NBC stubbornly continues with its plan for a Survivor-esque show involving the space station. The network, eager for one of those "reality TV" hits, contracted Survivor producer Mark Burnett to assemble a program wherein a group of would-be astronauts go through a space-camp competition, with the winner getting catapulted up to Mir.

So, would you take such a trip, even if it didn't require Machiavellian plotting before a TV audience? A good 20 percent of people who responded to an informal MSNBC survey declined. An even more informal survey around my own office produced an even more negative response, with approximately one person (me) wanting to go and the vast majority (everyone else) looking at me as if I were crazy for even asking. "I still got some years of life ahead of me," one scoffed.

OK, I'll grant that Mir -- which is shaped like a giant, complicated version of one of those nozzles you put on the garden hose -- may have some issues. It may be tired, outdated even. It's had computer glitches. Its air-circulation system has gone on the blink. It has suffered a collision with a cargo ship. It nearly roasted six astronauts, Jiffy Pop-style, in 1997 when a fire broke out onboard.

And then there is the fungus problem. Three different strains of fungi -- aspergillus, penicillium, and cadesporium -- have been creeping over this outer-space homestead in patches so thick and nasty that one visiting U.S. astronaut remarked, "There were areas you wouldn't want to stick your hand in." And this is not your everyday between-the-shower-tile-cracks stuff either, but space-radiated, extra-virulent mutations. You definitely don't want to be putting your hand in some space-age goo up there.

And don't forget the fact that the exo-atmospheric lifestyle in and of itself is bloody hell on the body: Your muscles atrophy from the lack of gravity, your immune system weakens from the radiation, your face gets all puffy and filled with snot, according to the helpful Humans in Space Web page. And, finally, let's not forget that the whole enterprise of blasting someone up into orbit is still so fretfully precarious that even the control freaks at NASA manage to blow things up every so often.

Still, sign me up.

Why? I'm not one for living dangerously per se. But I would hope, should the opportunity ever arise, that I would be -- what's the word? -- humble, yes, humble enough to see that there are experiences so utterly profound, so unbelievably unique, that any danger one puts oneself through in achieving them would be a worthy trade-off. I would consider looking out over our very own planet, floating unhinged against the universe's endless blackness, to be one of those experiences.

When I was growing up, a bunch of friends and I used to camp out down on the stony beaches of a nearby reservoir. It was during one of these nights, after an evening of heavy whiskey consumption, that I recognized, for the first time, our place in the cosmos. I had stretched out to fall asleep and was looking up into one of those crystal-clear nights -- you know, the ones when the entire wash of stars shines brightly. Maybe it was the bed-spinning effects of the drink (minus the bed), but for a brief but powerful moment I was overwhelmed by the sensation of not looking up at the stars but out over them -- as if they were at eye level and I was being stuck to the side of the earth by invisible forces. I imagined myself at the steering wheel of a fat, round craft, navigating my way through the maze of the Milky Way, the trees on either side of the lake merely marking the limits of my peripheral vision. Next stop, Saturn.

Dismiss it as a drunken hallucination if you will, but remember -- looking out "over" the stars is no more abnormal than looking "up" at them. Both are arbitrary descriptions. It's all a matter of perception. There is no "up" or "down" out there. And to catch a glimpse of this larger extra-planetary reality would be worth whatever petty currency -- monetary or otherwise -- I would have to pay in this smaller, more confined one.

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