Starstuff and a Farewell to America’s Reach to the Stars

All people (and I include plants, and animals, and mountains, etc. as people) are, as we Pagans are fond of noting, made of starstuff, made of “billion year-old carbon.”

I was born in 1956 and the “Space Race” — America’s competition with Soviet Russia to reach the Moon — is generally thought to have begun around 1957. (One v good side effect, and I admit there were many bad ones, but one v good side effect was a massive amount of money spent on America’s education system, esp. science, math, phys ed. from which I definitely benifitted. We could use a similar spur today.) So I grew up sitting, at various (often early-morning) intervals, hunched with my family, around our tiny black-and-white TV watching this amazingly exciting thing: monkeys, and then men (of course, they were ALWAYS men, back then; Hillary Clinton famously applied to be an astronaut and was turned down for lacking a penis) going INTO SPACE.

I can’t think what events in human history may have been at the same time as communal (the WHOLE COUNTRY was up at 4:00 am to watch the launch, re-entry, space walk; it was ALWAYS front page news in both the morning (Post) and evening (Star) papers; it was ALWAYS what Walter Cronkite mentioned first on the evening news) and as exciting as those space voyages. The first fan letter that I ever wrote was to John Glenn, who wrote back to me — a typed letter on NASA stationery! — to thank me for my “nice thoughts.” I’m not sure that he was completely able to make out my six-year-old printing, as he addressed the letter to a conglomerate of my first name, my brother’s first name, and my sister’s first name, as my mom had insisted that I sign the letter for all of us. But he wrote back to a six-year old girl and that’s something.

As I got older, science fiction became my genre of choice (followed, only shortly behind, by biography; I was sure that SOMEONE would show me how to live!). You name a science fiction author, I read them. (Which may be why I so much enjoyed reading Among Others (huge subplot devoted to girls who like Science Fiction) over Yule this year.) I think that I started, pretty much by accident and because it was one of the few books that I hadn't yet read at the Silver Spring library, with The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (beginning, as always in the midst of the hardest movement; I think I can count on both hands the trilogies that I DIDN’T begin reading in the middle; someday, I’ll tell you the story of me reading LoTR) and worked my way pretty much through the entire genre, esp. paying attention to Madeline L’Engle through Octavia Butler and Dune and everything (from Heinlein to Anthony to Verne and Wells to, well, you get the idea) in between. My very first lesson, as a student teacher, to a real class (of fourth graders!) was devoted to understanding Science Fiction. Nowadays, I’m a bit selective; I’ve read a lot of those plots before (as we all know, there are really only two plots in the entire world: (1) Someone Goes on a Journey and (2) A Stranger Comes to Town; and that’s really just one plot, told from two different points of view). But it’s still “home” to me — Science Fiction.

I admit to developing some ambiguous feelings, over time, about the money spent on a space race (which more and more seemed to be about developing space weapons) while people starved and went without health care and about the notion of colonizing other planets when we were all-too-obviously incapable of taking care of our own. And, yet, in the end, the notion of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and the value of understanding our universe always won out for me, always lured me back into the excitement of those moments when everyone in the world watched people walk in space, walk on the Moon, splash back down. (Though I’d still hate to see a colony on the Moon — my Mother, mystery, the source of my monthly devotions.)

I still remember the exact moment when, teaching high school, I stepped out into the hall during class change and the math teacher next door to me told me that The Challenger, carrying a woman, and, for the first time, a teacher, (years after NASA told Hillary and many other girls, “NO,” they decided to admit women) had exploded after lift-off. I went back to my own classroom (luckily for me, it was my planning period) and wept for the better part of an hour.

And so, it was with a lot of tears today that I stepped outside, onto the roof of the office building where I do law, and watched Space Shuttle Discovery fly over DC before being grounded. There are gorgeous pictures all over the web; maybe my favorite is this one, which shows Discovery flying past the scaffolded statue of Columbia (Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace) atop the U.S. Capitol:

(Picture found here.)

Or maybe my favorite one is this one, taken by my beloved and brilliant friend, E:

Or maybe my favorite one is this one, which shows DC so well:

(That’s me, that teeny, tiny, less-than-a-tenth-of-a-pixel over in the far right-hand corner, the woman in a navy blue suit waving, with tears running down her cheeks.)

(Picture found here.)

Or, maybe, and, yes, I think this is really my favorite, my favorite picture is this one that shows Discovery flying past a wonderful sculpture (in my city of sculptures upon a swamp) known as Awakening:

(Picture appeared in Capital Weather Gang blog).

I love it best because it combines the elements of the human hand with one of what (I still want to hope) is the highest products of human hands: the reach into the stars.

I started this post out as a potpourri post, but it’s grown too long. I’ll end here. What do you think about the move into space? How do you feel about the fact that America has abandoned that goal to the Chinese and others so that we can give big tax breaks to the already-too-rich (counsel is leading the witnesses)? Did you grow up reading Science Fiction? What books formed you? Who do you still read?

Initial picture found here.

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8 responses to “Starstuff and a Farewell to America’s Reach to the Stars

  1. Really enjoyed this thank you

  2. Grew up reading Asimov (and the Golden Age writers) and dozens upon dozens of stories in thick, old paperback anthologies and comic books — and watching television shows like Space 1999 and sci-fi movies about handsome space adventurers and dastardly space monsters. Watched Lost in Space and Star Trek on TV. Still remember watching Star Wars for the first time. Can’t believe that the U.S. has given up another yet great industry (combining dreams, education and science) that could have inspired so many children for so many generations.

  3. I was born at about the same time as the atomic bomb and had the pleasure of growing up under that particular shadow. The “space race” was, of course, driven primarily by Americans’ fear that the Russkies would weaponize space before the U.S. could. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, interest seemed to drain away, and shuttle launches hardly make prime-time news these days, as far as I can tell.

    Communal and exciting? Yes, to be sure. Nevertheless, my feeling, for what it is worth, is that, if we have the resources for this sort of thing, it might be better to invest them elsewhere until humanity has reached a point at which the primary purpose of space exploration will be something other than weaponization or exploitation.

    What about devoting similar funding to oceanography? FSM knows that, in truth, we know very little about the seas that make up the bulk of the earth’s surface, and by whose dynamics we may live or die. Intrepid submariners could be every bit heroic as intrepid astronauts, IMO. Or how about archaeology? Funding expeditions to find, identify, and study the records of our own past could result in learning new and valuable things about ourselves. Not every archaeologist is an Indiana Jones, of course; but, again, this type of exploration offers its own form of excitement and reward. And it would be nice to get a lot of this work done before those records get paved over for office towers and parking lots.

    Longstoryshort: There’s plenty to learn about our own planet, and much of that knowledge may be crucial to our survival. Time enough for space exploration if and once humanity is able to engage in it for purposes that will be constructive rather than destructive.

  4. I invie you and all others to read:
    “THE STARS MY DESTINATION” by Alfred Bester
    http://www.american-buddha.com/starsmydestinationtoc.htm
    and “…await the awakening.”

  5. I did grow up loving science fiction, everything from Asimov to Zimmer-Bradley. I think “Dune” helped shape who I am, but I don’t think (even at age 59) that I am finished being shaped. Presently, I am possessed by the dystopia of “The Hunger Games” trilogy…and likewise sad to see America abandoning space. I fear it will become the domain of private industry…and for the rich like in another dystopian epic: “Blade Runner”!

  6. The Space Shuttle was one piece of 1970s technology that more or less fulfilled its promise. It land-borne cousin did not.

    So what next? Private companies in space seems to be the new trend.

  7. Well, you know me by now: raised on Science Fiction. I also have beloved memories of getting up at unearthly hours to watch lift-offs with my Dad-and Bradbury’s “R is For Rocket”explains the feeling so well.

    Love,
    Terri in Jobyrg

  8. Began with “Danny Dunn and the Basidiumites” in the 5th grade, but count my formal introduction to the genre from the 8th grade when my English teacher dropped a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land” on my desk.
    Favorite authors: Ursula LeGuin, Tanith Lee, Frank Herbert, Iain Banks, Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delaney, Somtow Sucharitkul, Octavia Butler, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe.

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