UQ Wire: Kiss the Sky
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Kiss the Sky
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
February 1, 2003
"Here Men from The Planet Earth
First Set Foot upon The Moon
July, 1969 AD
We Came in Peace for All Mankind. "
- Plaque left behind on the moon's surface by the crew of Apollo 11.
It began, in truth, as a byproduct of both Nazi rocket ingenuity and as yet another field of battle in the Cold War. When the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union first set their eyes to the stars, they did not have dreams of exploration in their hearts. Both wished to beat the other to that high ground for purely strategic reasons, and both used the propulsion wisdom developed by expatriated scientists from the destroyed Third Reich to do it.
When the Soviets launched the satellite, Sputnik, into orbit above Earth in 1957, the race began in earnest. The ante was raised in 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to pierce the veil of our atmosphere and enter the oceanic emptiness of the universe. Less than a month later, American astronaut Alan Shepard followed the trail of Gegarin, strapped into the nosecone of a missile that a lot of NASA officials sincerely believed might blow up on the launch pad. A year later, John Glenn orbited the Earth. In 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov and American astronaut Ed White took the first 'walks' in space. By 1968, America had finally outstripped the Soviet rocketeers who had been repeatedly embarrassing them when astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders orbited the moon. In July of 1969, the entire planet was stilled in wondrous awe as Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another celestial body.
Somewhere along the way, it became about much more than a race for Cold War supremacy in the stars. When President John F. Kennedy gathered the cause of space exploration to himself, applying his unique gifts for rhetoric and inspirational speech, the contest for space became about far more than beating the Soviets. "But why, some say, the moon?" asked Kennedy in 1962. "Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain?"
Perhaps it was the headiness of the very idea, torn from the pages of pulp science fiction, that made our slow reach into the universe about so much more than mean gamesmanship between nations. A moment's consideration of the possibilities - some of which have already been realized with our unmanned trips to Mars and the outer planets, and our placement of the Hubble Telescope in the skies above Earth - boggles the mind. Knowing the essence of humanity, however, it is a mission that always seemed unavoidable. As Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins said, "It's human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it's an imperative."
This, perhaps, is the rub. In this boiling cauldron of fallible human frailty and ignorance, we cast our eyes to the heavens and wondered what was there. We decided to do the impossible, to break free of the dead weight of gravity, to land our ships and our easily damaged bodies on a rock above that was utterly inhospitable to life, and we did it. We wanted to see what was on Mars, our closest planetary brother, and so our physicists executed the most extraordinary galactic corner-pocket pool shot in history by placing a probe dead-center-perfect on the surface of that red sphere. We wanted to see what was at the farthest reaches, and so we put the Hubble Telescope into space and found that we could take pictures not only of the farthest reaches of measurable distance, but of time itself. Not so long ago, we took a picture of a moment in time not so far removed from that second when God snapped His fingers and said, "Let there be light."
It was good.
The challenge of space has always been a dangerous undertaking. On January 27, 1967, American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee burned to death during a launch rehearsal, when a spark ignited the pure oxygen environment of their capsule. On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 was launched. Days into their mission to the moon, an explosion crippled the ship, and only a series of small miracles coupled with the incredible professionalism of the astronauts on board and the NASA technicians back home brought the ship safely back to Earth. In 1981 the first Space Shuttle was launched, and five years later the world watched on January 28 when the shuttle Challenger exploded seconds into its flight. Seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, died.
We have returned, today, to the shroud. Seven astronauts - Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Ilan Ramon - died when the shuttle Colombia came apart in fire and tears while attempting to return home. The cause of the accident is unknown at this time. We are left only with the image of a new star in the sky, streaking towards Earth in a blaze of woe.
Proverbs 29:18 reads, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." It seems so often today that the world has lost that vision, and roils itself in conflict and hatred and fear. The seven astronauts who perished today, and those who lived and died before them, remind us of the greatness that dwells uniquely in this shabby human vessel. Such vision always comes to cost us all in blood, but it is blood shed for a cause beyond territory or resources or narrow and isolated ideologies. When men and women die in the pursuit of what is greatest about humanity, it is both a tragedy and a glorious statement of what is best in all of us. We mourn them in the deepest well of our souls, and stand in wonder that such magnificence and bravery could have ever been at all.
There is a lesson in this, I think, for all of us to ponder today. The space race began as an extension of a military death struggle. It continues in the same vein today to no small degree. Somewhere in between, however, it also became a statement about what we can become, and what we can accomplish, when we set our minds to it. In these dark days, that should not be forgotten.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times bestselling author of two books - - "War On Iraq" (with Scott Ritter) available now from Context Books, and "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available in May 2003 from Pluto Press. He teaches high school in Boston, MA.
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