'Via Galactica'

Via Galactica

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

—President John F. Kennedy, 1962, Rice University 

WHEN I TURNED 50 YEARS OLD, I decided to try to keep up with the Universe, that, and the world of high finance. It was time to take care of business and contemplate the long view. What is “This” all about?

I bought a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine, which advertises “innovative astro-imaging gear for non-gazillionaires,” “Nagler Zooms,” “Dialectric Diagonals,” “Truss-Tube Dobsonians,” and the “Celestron sky-scout personal planetarium,” all this on pages between articles about Dark Matter, lunar seas, meteor showers, Sagittarius star clouds, black-hole jets, cosmological enigmas, and Mercury’s orbit. One of my neighbors has a telescope on a roof deck, but I didn’t go down that shopping road. I began reading more and watching “nature” programs on television.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns a painting by Paul Gauguin that has one of the best titles for an artwork: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It’s one of Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti. In 1897, he made the tropical tableau filled with native islanders, animals, and a statue of an Eastern deity. The artist said the visual narrative follows the journey of his life. The background is mountains, sea, and sky, the opening to space.

Before I had turned 50, I was clipping news articles about space and saving them in manila folders, which I marked with the year, thinking they would be fodder for later writing. Who is the great poet of space? Who is the Walt Whitman of the Milky Way, the via galactica or road of milk as the Romans named it? In the film medium, we have creative heroes of the Space Age like Stanley Kubrick, Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, Sigourney Weaver, Ron Howard, and George Lucas. Tom Wolfe made The Right Stuff sail as non-fiction. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov gave us fictional space worlds.

In early 1997, the owner of a company where I live in Lowell, Mass., a company specializing in polymer-coated textiles, called me about a free-lance writing assignment. I wound up managing several days of media relations for the manufacturer of “the first man-made material to touch the surface of Mars,” when the Mars Pathfinder bounced down on Ares Vallis of the Chryse Planitia region on July 4, 1997. Bradford Industries, whose main business involved coating car airbag fabric with silicone, had been chosen by NASA to prepare material for a cluster of Vectran airbags that were deployed to soften the landing of the craft, which bounced 15 times. The bags didn’t rip.

There was even a quirky tangent: nineteenth-century astronomer Percival Lowell of the “Lowell” Lowells in Boston made news in his day when he claimed to have spotted canals on Mars. He posited that the linear surface features had been dug by Martian engineers. Later critics suggested that Lowell may have over-interpreted his observations of natural depressions in the soil because he was familiar with the extensive power-canal system in the textile-factory city named for one of his ancestors. The Mars Pathfinder held inside of it a robotic vehicle, a rover named Sojourner in honor of the well-traveled African-American abolitionist and campaigner for women’s rights, Sojourner Truth. The rover talked to its designers on Earth for a long time.

On May 29, 1998, page one of the New York Times featured above-the-fold articles about Pakistan’s underground nuclear tests, calling it the first “Islamic bomb,” and a fuzzy digitized photo of radiating starlight above a small illuminated sphere described as “the first image of a planet outside our solar system.” The location is the constellation Taurus, estimated to be 450 light-years from Earth. The Hubble Telescope made the picture of the planet, which could be twice the size of Jupiter, at the end of a 130 billion-mile trail of starlight. The third story above the fold was a report about the federal Environmental Protection Agency announcing that automobile catalytic converters form nitrous oxide, which stokes global warming. Life is a chemistry set.

My son turned eight years old on February 9, 2003. When I was eight, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth, and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the edge of a nuclear war. Government officials advised average families to build concrete fallout shelters in their basements to be prepared for a missile attack. The father in the family across the street from my house constructed and equipped a shelter for the two parents and three children. The man worked for a local defense firm, a manufacturer of American missiles. I went inside the shelter once when I was at a birthday party in the cellar of the house. Blankets, water, canned food, tissues, toilet paper, a radio, and a small tool box were stored on shelves. There were seats that converted to beds. The same year, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, exposing the damage done to living things by the misuse of chemicals and probing the public conscience like a needle to the national brain.

Eight days before my son’s eighth birthday, a NASA spacecraft disintegrated as it sped back to the Earth’s surface. “The space shuttle Columbia, streaking across a bright blue Texas sky at about 3.5 miles a second, broke up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” James Barron wrote in the Times. Everyone on board died: Navy Commander William C. McCool, the pilot; payload commander Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an engineer; Navy doctors Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Salton Clark; and the first astronaut from Israel, Col. Ilan Ramon.

(2003)