22 June 2014

It's just the wind, right?

It's just the wind, right?  Or maybe not.

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s.  There was so much going on.  A larger world swirled like The Starry Night upon the limits of my own.  The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, drugs, young men with long hair, pretty girls in gauzy shirts and peasant skirts, Martin Luther King, Civil Rights marches, peace marches, riots, Vietnam, body counts on Walter Cronkite.  It was all so overwhelming, so impossible to make sense of, so strange and wondrous and daunting for a boy who lived in books.

But there was one thing I did make sense of.  We were going to the moon.  I loved looking up at the stars and puzzling out the constellations.  As dim and pale as they were above the streetlights of the Bronx, they still shone brightly for me.  The sky was more full of worlds than all the books ever written.  And we were going to the moon.

With every Apollo mission we came closer, until one magical night in July 1969 that was even better than Star Trek.  I went outside and looked up, not because I expected to be able to see anything, but because we were there.  We were there.

Even afterwards I watched every mission, still excited.  The tension of Apollo 13 was breathtaking, but my faith then was childlike and perfect: I had no doubt they would return safely.  It was only years later that I realized how close they had come to never coming back at all.  But that was after Challenger, when the boldness of going into space no longer seemed linked to an equal brilliance of leadership.  The glory and vision of Apollo sank into scheduled maintenance on the Hubble.

It wasn't that the astronauts were less brave or less skilled.  They still climbed on top of a rocket and rode fire into the heavens.  It wasn't that experience and routine made their missions less dangerous.  We have the evidence to prove the opposite. It was that the gap between our reach and our grasp became so great that we confined ourselves to what we could do in near orbit and what we could see from afar.  Our one and only spaceship, which was plump and stodgy to begin with, became a delivery van.  

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s, but even Hubble's images of the far end of the time, and Kepler's detections of hundreds of planets circling distant stars, as magnificent and humbling as they are, will never be as compelling as the Apollo Program.  If I could look up and see the Pillars of Creation in the night sky and pick out Kepler-186f, I would be outside looking up every single night.  Not because they would be beautiful.  No, not merely that.  But because some part of my humanity would want to know what it was like there, would want us to go there, even if I know that such journeys will almost certainly remain forever beyond our ability.  Still the idea of such voyages of discovery would trump the pedestrian impossibility.  That's why the idea of Mars will not die.

Perhaps it's because I was a little boy in the late 1960s, but a night came in early 2005 when the Huygens probe landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and rekindled the wonder I had felt long before.  The simple expedient of attaching a microphone to the outside of the craft allowed me to hear the wind blow on another world.

To hear the wind blow on another world.  

To hear the wind blow on another world.  

We were there.

More on Titan
More on Apollo
The Magic Words
The Other Magic Words

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