A Fellow Citizen in Space

Amsterdammers seem apathetic that one of their own is charting a course to another ‘Magical Centre of the Universe’.

By Steve Korver, 28-04-2004, Amsterdam Weekly

Andre_KuipersWe should all be proud. The first Amsterdammer in Space, Andre Kuipers, will be splashing – hopefully not splatting – down this week on Queen’s Day after 11 days of high flying on the International Space Station.

But locals seem fairly blasé about it all. And in many ways it is all a tad ho-hum. It’s not as if he’s Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, or some such iconic God. Hell, he’s not even Wubbo Ockels, the first Netherlander in Space. And Lord knows it’s easy to be overshadowed by two such heavy-duty dudes.

But one would think there would be more of a fuss with such an Amster-story about life, the universe and everything. In fact, it would seem that this is the perfect opportunity to pump some life back into the city’s sagging reputation as “magical centre of the universe”. So why the apparent apathy?

Maybe Amsterdammers spend too much time getting spaced out in the coffeeshops and the idea of real space has become passé for them. Or maybe they are just feigning indifference, so Rotterdammers don’t get jealous and start to cry “Conspiracy!” and claim that it’s all a big fake, like the moon landing, and that Kuipers is just another hammy actor. (And admittedly, with his baldhead and ample girth, Kuipers does come across as a rather jolly interstellar Kojak.)

Or maybe it’s a national phenomenon and derives from the fact that outer space just does not have a lot of resonance here in this tiny land where the stronger urge has been towards the cosy  gezelligheid of innerspace. After all, this is a country that produced Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope who actually went so far as to breed flies on his thighs for his sick micro-kicks. And Amsterdam’s own Jan Swammerdam laid the foundation for that microscopic discipline of study of all that is buggery but is now called Entomology.

With such tendencies, it’s only natural that minimism has developed in this country to the point of mass psychosis – the most disturbing symptom of course being the building of Madurodam, ‘the world’s largest miniature village’. But as singular as all these achievements are, they are equally strong as cases for actually starting to think bigger. And hence, a cosmonaut from the lowlands would seem like the perfect antidote for this madness for the microscopic. Sadly, Kuipers himself seems to suffer from this love for the small to point of the delusional: he described being tin canned for two days on the capsule carrying him to the space station as “just going camping with two friends in a small tent” – um yeah, a small tent that also doubles as a toilet.

Humans generally like their heroes with an edge, but Kuipers comes across as just another nuchter Netherlander. Case in point: while Russian cosmonauts famously smuggle hip flasks of vodka with them to the space station, Kuipers announced to the international press that his little bit of contraband would be some belegen cheese. I’m sorry but even for a space idealist like myself, this action comes across as way too – excuse me – cheesy. If he wanted be a patriot, the least he could have done was lie and say he was bringing up some jenever with him. But what would be really bolshoi embarrassing is if he goes completely overboard with his stereotypical Dutchness and is busted on his departure from the space station trying to steal the towels.

Which brings us to the next point: the accusations of him being too much of a “space tourist”. This sentiment was best expressed in a editorial cartoon in the NRC Handelsblad headlined “Doubts of the Scientific Usefulness of Kuipers’ Voyage” and featuring an Einstein-type stating: “we are particularly interested in the effects of weightlessness on fat bald fortysomethings with a midlife crisis”.

But people should rise above being so blatantly jaded. In fact, Kuipers has worked hard on dozens of vital experiments. Interestingly – since it follows nicely with the Dutch fascination for the small and cosy – much of this work deals with the effect of gravity on tiny things. For instance, he brought 3 million Caenorhabditis Elegans worms (one wonders: on his thighs?) for tests that will answer many questions on the long-term effects of both weightlessness and cosmic radiation that will be fundamental for the quest of humans to reach Mars in the short term. And we all want to get to Mars don’t we? And just think of the children: many of who will be inspired by Kuipers to become nerds – and this planet certainly needs all the nerds it can get.

So come on people: fight against all this cynicism. Kuipers’ achievements should be regarded as a cosmic event that can act to unify this city. Perhaps now Amsterdammers will stop swinging between left and right and finally choose to go in the only direction that matters: up, up and away towards an interstellar future where both the liberal and the conservative, the living and the dead, the fat and the bald, all just hang mellow in the ultimately loungey atmosphere of zero gravity.

Wouldn’t it be great if Kuipers entered politics? Or – considering the auspicious timing of his return to gravity’s embrace on Queen’s Day – maybe we should just make him Queen. I, for one, will be selling some really special T-shirts this Queen’s Day: Kuipers voor Koningin!

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