In space, no one can hear you spam

What does one e-mail an astronaut while he’s in space? You tell me: articles from The Onion? The YouTube video of the iPhone in a blender? I think not.

Last week, a few hours before space shuttle Endeavour’s countdown began, NASA offered me e-mail correspondence with the shuttle during its 13-day journey to the International Space Station. My friend Steve Robinson is onboard—it’s his fourth such mission and, as the shuttle program will be retired this year, probably his last trip to outer space.

Steve and I met as undergrads back at UC Davis’ student-run radio station KDVS. Our e-mails these days are those of busy people catching up, making plans, swapping music, et cetera. Everybody knows this routine, but e-mailing someone in space? I’m stuck: The guy will be awfully busy, the usual small talk will seem smaller than usual, and if there’s any place more foreign to me than the inside of a spaceship—what kind of mood ensues while flying 17,500 mph through a place without breathable air?—I can’t think of it.

I don’t even like e-mail much. I like that it’s fast and it’s free, but both of these qualities lure trouble: the e-mails I never should have sent, the quick comment that needed more thought, the misunderstanding that started in e-mail and went on to grow hairy arms and legs. And I hate when people don’t respond to my e-mail—current e-etiquette be damned; rude is rude.

Still, what do you e-mail an astronaut? Maybe I don’t say anything. I’m not doing anything this week as remotely interesting as flying through space. Current events? I imagine others will tell Steve anything he really needs to know about the health-care debate. (Did you know astronauts are trained to remove each other’s appendix in case of medical emergency? I didn’t. Does Obama? Is there a national model in here somewhere?)

Never mind interactivity. Maybe it’s time to just listen. The space shuttle is a closed, inescapable workplace, sort of like a department of tenured faculty or, oh my, the current economy (a different kind of airless workspace). Do astronauts need to vent? Yeah, right: My spouse, Melinda (editor of SN&R), and I did try to attend Steve’s last launch (it was a scrub). Yet while touring Cape Canaveral, I was struck by the cordiality of the place. Those folks are focused.

Still: What do you e-mail an astronaut while he’s in space? I’m working on it. After Steve’s re-entry, our ensuing correspondence will be just regular e-mail, and how tired is that?