Friday, January 2, 2009

Turn Left at the Dog Star

"Is there anybody alive out there?" -- Bruce Springsteen

The Mercury-Atlas spacecraft carrying Alan Sheppard set sail on February 10, 1962. It was a sub-orbital venture that carried Sheppard 116 statute miles skyward and ended almost as abruptly as it began. I woke at 5 am to watch the launch on our flickering black and white television. By then I was 10 years old and had already traveled much further into space than Sheppard.

My first favorite novels were written by science fiction masters, and they cultivated in me a hunger to travel across the starry heavens to encounter, one hoped, a friendly face, an outstretched hand, people who knew how to live in this mixed-up mess of exploding personalities and uncomfortable atmospheres.

Ever since, I've searched in the star-ship of Florence's mighty Duomo, amidst the marbled forest of pillars in Notre Dame, in the glittering candles and gold elephants of Ganesh in Buddhist monasteries, among the weeping, gnashing throngs of davening Jews in synagogues, in the stoic faces inside the al-Aqsa mosque, and amidst the whirling dervishes who surf the cosmos without leaving the room. Trapped in my ever-decaying body, bound on a planet ruled by the least-qualified humans to hold the job, I sought escape to the heavens where I would find beings of my own higher nature.

In my youth, I gobbled up the first novels of early Heinlein where, in Red Planet, Jim befriends the young Martian boy Willis. After Jim rebels against the uber-authoritarian humans at his boarding school, Willis entreats his elders to let Jim live among the Martians. A friend in an unfriendly cosmos is a friend indeed. Later, I drank deep of Ray Bradbury and kept his signed copy of Golden Apples of the Sun ("How do you like these apples?" he wrote to me) until I saw him as an adult manning a booth promoting nuclear power.

And I rose the morning of each Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch, turning off the sound so as not to wake my parents, delighting in the raw chutzpah of men who strapped themselves into hardware that frequently blew into billions of pieces in a fireball of inept human engineering. I marveled in Ed White's first walk into space, wondering what he truly saw through his silvery visor, if the stars fanned out in vertiginous depths without atmospheric twinkle or--as I later learned--spherical aberrations of the lens. I wept when White perished in the January 27, 1967 flash fire of an oxygen-rich Apollo spacecraft, the result the alchemy of human pride and blunder.

In high school I wrote a script for Star Trek, visiting Desilu Studios for personal copy of the show's bible, a booklet that talked about the power of warp drive, the concept of transporting, and the nature of Spock's Vulcan ears. The literary agent to whom my father sent my completed script actually delivered it to Desilu and later wrote back to my dad, "The script is just too similar to recent episodes they have bought, but as a writer, your son definitely has it." Grist for a life of letters and starry explorations.

My friends, too, remained loyal to the fantasy that we'd outlive human ignorance and someday fly to the heavens. Dennis, Russ, and I packed food, sleeping bags, and wild brownies into the trunk of a blue Chevy Malibu and drove 9 hours through the night to Oregon's Columbia River Gorge in February of 1979 to see a total solar eclipse. Once you've seen one, you'll understand why people save their hard-earned money for years to fly around the world to see another. The sun rose over the sparkling river, then the birds were silent, and a shadow moved across the rolling hills of the Dalles, a black terminator rolling steadily, ominously over trees and farms until it swept directly overhead and plunged us into darkness. The stars flooded out and then the black, obverse sun gleamed like a onyx, endless eye with a flaming corona overhead. Just as the chill of night seeped down, the sun coursed effortlessly through the sudden dark and flared bright and warm overhead and the starlings burst from the trees and down the canyon in broadening circles.

We piled into the Malibu again, the three wanderers, out to the Dryden Research Center in the morning chill of April 14, 1981 to watch as the first space shuttle Columbia left its cradle atop a 747 airliner and sailed gracefully through the bright morning sky to a safe landing in the California desert. Surely, there was room for us aboard.

In college I volunteered at the NASA Ames facility for sleep experiments to explore the effects of long-term space flight. I enrolled in astronomy 101, joining other seekers on dark mountaintops for unobstructed views of heavenly bodies. Once you knew where to look, you could spot the moons of Jupiter, pinpricks of hopeful light arranged in their ecliptic plane across the bright, huge mother world --spot them with simple binoculars. And aided by telescope, you could see the azure dust of the great nebula Messier 42, just there, in the middle of the jewels of Orion's belt. The science was baffling to a lad who never passed a math class the first time. But I took a second course in planetary astronomy, continuing until the physics overwhelmed me. Dropping out, I decided that I'd rather be an innocent bystander than a scholarly inquisitor.

In the 1990s, I visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the control center for all manned space flights. The gigantic Apollo booster rocket lay on its side, a discarded cocoon from which spring the dreams and conquest of the lunar surface. Sometimes, I turn on the NASA channel just to watch space travelers perform their silent terpsichore over the whirling blue heavens below, the heavens that separate them from where I whirl at a thousand miles per hour on this precious living rock that bridges this world and the next one. I marvel at the black and white science films of my childhood where scientists once predicted that we would orbit satellites that forecast weather and aided communications and how, today, I watch the NASA channel via one of those artifices, that the brave new world of my childhood is the same one that I take for granted today, the same one that threatens our existence as going human concerns by our thirst for material mastery at the expense of our most-precious resource of wonder, generosity, and kindness.

In the 1960s, we embarked on what we called the Space Race. It was a race for military supremacy of the heavens. Today, the Russians we hoped to beat now share bunks with us in an orbital station we've assembled like some ticker toy of disparate parts. Over the decades I've rather thought that the race was for survival itself in the face of our own stupidity. I hoped we'd get off this diseased rock and find a new home among the wandering worlds unblemished by human stain before we exterminated ourselves on this one. We seem to be losing that race.

"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?" Rilke wrote. "Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware that we are not home in our interpreted world."

If you can, pull away from the hypnotic eye of the television some night and drive out beyond the bubble of city lights to where the Milky Way spreads its lace across the heavens. Don't you ever wonder, "Who made all of this?" Those billions of burning stars--some newly birthed, some dying, some long gone into dust--are members of our extended family. Onward against the current of our own egos we search the cosmos for the God inside of us, the universal soul that inhabits every living being residing in strange or forgotten worlds. Encountering them for the first time as we extend ourselves, they reach out to welcome us home.


Rick said...

Hi Gabby.

A quick note to say how much I'm enjoying reading your blog. I'm always very engaged as I read along. Keep it coming!

I found you after I discovered you had included my Friday Bruce Fix in your blog list. Thanks for that. Much appreciated. I like that Blogness on the Edge of Town, too.

All the best for 2009!


Gabby said...

Thanks, Rick. I've probably been right next to you in the pit at one or many Bruce shows. Went to eight of them for the Magic tour. I appreciate your blog a lot!

See you further on down the road!