Houston, We Have a Problem

Go ahead, name ‘em.  I’ll wait.  The original seven Mercury astronauts.  You should know this.  Come on, you can do it.  And while you’re at it, give me the names of the Russian Five from the ’97 Detroit Red Wings.  And no, Vladimir Sputnik was not one of the defensemen.

The 1960s.  Ahh, that decade that just keeps giving (alas).  But there was also the Space Race, and of that generation I am an injection molded product.  Coming of age with Geritol, powdered coffee creamer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and Herman’s Hermits.  And yes, I assembled a bunch of plastic models and sniffed a lot of airplane glue, which of course explains a great deal.

My old friend Wernher von Braun would be pleased to hear about the model rockets that I assembled from paper tubes and balsa wood.  Gorgeous vehicles.  A lot of work.  But, live and learn.  There was the one that was unstable — bright white, with gleaming yellow fins, which I apparently placed a bit too far forward on the body.  It came off the launch pad, hollered “wait a minute, something’s terribly wrong!”, and immediately did a U-Turn and started smacking itself on the ground repeatedly.  I dove for cover, like Wile E. Coyote about to be charred by an ACME missile, while the rocket flailed around until the engine was spent, it spun on the ground, and fell silent.  Then…  “pfooot!”…   out came the Looney Tunes parachute.  A failed mission that we chalked up to R&D.

Which leads me to a second failed experiment and some advice.  Whatever you do, don’t be a knucklehead and paint your model rocket sky blue and white.  It will get ten feet off the pad and that will be it, you’ll never see it again.  Unless you get lucky and it takes down a Cessna or you see the parachute pop out.  You’ll be left there staring up into the sky like you’re attending the Ascension.  You can kiss it goodbye, just like those high altitude dreams of this young boy, with his low altitude eyesight and black plastic-rimmed glasses.

But, as with most of my astronaut training I have Maytag to thank.  In particular, the boxes — the large cartons the washing machines come in, which can be retrofitted to create a fine land-based Gemini simulator which easily installs in your basement and can be used for endurance experiments and COG (center of gravity) tests.

For the latter, place the empty Maytag box on its side at the top of your stairs and release it.  Notice how it floats effortlessly down the steps and gently deposits itself in the living room.  Now, return the box to the top of the stairs and place your little brother in the box.  Once again release it down the steps.  You may notice, as our experiments revealed, that the ensuing COG shift will destabilize the carton in such a manner as to promote catching the front corner of the box on the steps, which then initiates an end-over-end movement, what we call in the space business an uncontrolled orbital roll.  And really, all you can do is let gravity take charge and be grateful that little brothers are pliable and probably won’t hold it against you that the test somersaulted and plastered him against the Baldwin Acrosonic organ.  And all of that for a glass of Tang.

The Mercury flights of Shepard and Glenn… the Gemini missions, with Ed White and his space walk…  the Apollo missions…   the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in which we lost Grissom, White, and Chaffee…   the Apollo 8 Genesis reading…  the Apollo 10 “dress rehearsal” that took the lunar module achingly close to landing on the surface of the moon…   and Apollo 11, with the “one giant leap for mankind” broadcast from the surface of the moon on live black & white TV.  And Walter Cronkite there to hold our hand through it all.

Did you know, that in terms of overall performance, your iPhone 6 is 120,000,000 times faster than the computer used aboard the Apollo spacecraft?  And that therefore, theoretically, your iPhone 6 could guide 120 million Apollo rockets at the same time?  Amazing, huh?  And yet, why does it sometimes feel like we’re going backwards?  

I’m not questioning the desires or resolve of modern space explorers, nor am I suggesting that present day space exploration is uninteresting or unimpressive from a technical standpoint.  I only ask why it is that I am left unmoved by it.  The talk of Martian soil and evidence of water.  The dream of human colonies on our moon or on other planets in our solar system.  Why the pursuit?  Is it something that we long for?  Is it that as a “species” we somehow need to push out into space?  For what purpose and to what end?  Has it become an obligatory exploration of the unknown that now rarely inspires us, having become a thinly technical human exploit?   Why does the adventure in it seem oddly played out?  Can it have anything to do with the fractured nature of contemporary human life, with our seemingly irresolvable human problems?  Will we pin our hopes on colonizing the lunar landscape, or moving to Mars and growing broccoli in our own waste?  Will we explore the universe even as we fail to (my beef) explore the human heart?  Will we just take our problems with us to another planet?  But, listen to me…  I’ve shuffled off the raw spirit of youth and have too soon become a curmudgeon.  And yet, whence the wistful?  Can you tell me, young man?

Certainly we have jettisoned any inclinations or attributions demonstrated in the Apollo 8 Genesis reading.  I’ll hear that again when I see them erect another statue of a Puritan on the Cambridge Common.  We’ve moved on.  But to where?  Probes and dyes and radioactive tracers that reveal particular brain activities on scanners, and yet before us remains the Hard Problem of human consciousness.  Our own in particular.

Maybe my problem is the simple contrast between ambitions outward and those inward.  Or, as Walker Percy noted in Lost in the Cosmos, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?”

Why preserve and extend the human story onto other spheres?  We know that one day our sun will become a red giant and we’ll all perish anyway.  The end of the human drama, full stop.  And the encore, only vast emptiness.  Are you telling me it’s that scenario that gets you out of bed in the morning?  And yet we speak of love and meaning and purpose.  Do we mean chemicals in the brain that create love and meaning and purpose, or is there possibly more going on?  We say we’re made to explore.  But made by what?  Made by whom?

Curious that as I write this it is Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter.  The Gospel reading for the day is from John 3, and includes: 

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,

but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light,

so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,

so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

I love space travel.  Through various spaces.  Even through the hidden considerations of thought.  Moving out into the darkness and into the light.  Space travel whose genesis is a journey through the human experience and maybe even the human soul.  Unless the scanners can’t trace that.  Supernova grand adventures, inches and light years away.  

And perhaps, as Walter said, “that’s the way it is”…