Thursday, May 5, 2011

50 years in space

Today is the 50th anniversary of the flight of Alan Shephard who became the first American in space, only three weeks after the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

I do not remember those flights, of course, I would not even be born for another year and several months. But I do remember the excitement of the years that followed. The fact that humans could now travel into space was the number one fact of the time. Adults were talking about it. And my young boy mind soaked up that excitement like a sponge.

I did not have the mental tools then to put the achievements of space exploration in historical context. I understood that space flight must be expensive and dangerous. Still it did not occur to me that the progress of human space exploration was something that might plateau, or even reverse, that having achieved the moon landings, a nation or humanity as a whole might lose interest. I did not think that a discovery can only be made once, after all, that having journeyed to a place for the first time for reasons of curiosity or the political prestige of doing it first, different motivations were needed to return. If in my lifetime, humans were on the moon, surely that meant we would be on Mars in another decade or two, and I would be part of making that happen.

I realize now that my excitement about space was in part the normal excitement of a boy over things that were fast and powerful. But it was also a way of being connected to the vast space that is out there. Perhaps the word "space" itself was the problem. Space is everywhere the Earth is not. Space was up, Earth was down. In space you get to wear a special suit, in Earth you just breath. What is cool about that?

Today I like the word "universe" better. That which unites everything. If space is not here, the universe certainly is. It is part of me and I am part of it, always. The very act of breathing on Earth connects to me physically to every one and everything that lives here, or ever has. Not touching the moon myself is OK. Not visiting every continent is OK. I don't have to prove anything to the universe, like being the first person to do something no one else has done. If I can not touch space in my lifetime (and few of us alive today will ever get up there), I can touch the universe any time I want. In fact, I can not NOT touch the universe. Don't try this at home. Breathing turns out to be pretty cool, after all.

Still, some parts of the universe I cannot touch (in that which we call "space") are pretty cool to look it. And it is cool to think that some people I have seen with my own eyes (Buzz Aldrin, for example) have touched parts of the universe (the moon) I will never be able to touch while I am alive. I was alive when that happened. I shared the air with the people who went. That is pretty cool in itself.