Old Age, Space Age

I had heard that there would be a lunar eclipse last night, so when I got up at 4:30, I looked for it.  The moon was about 2/3 covered and was opening up, but it did initially have a pink glow.  I was glad to see it –the night was cold but the sky was clear, and the stars (suns) were out.

It reminded me of other nocturnal sky events, most notably when I was 6 and we were living out in the woods. My father bundled us out of bed to see Sputnik as it moved like a living star across the sky.  Such excitement as he pointed upwards and told us we were seeing something that no one had ever seen before.  I don’t know if we saw Sputnik 1 or 2 – the second was launched about a month afterwards and contained the poor dog Laika, with whom I had much empathy as a child and later included in one of my stories.

Last night’s lunar viewing also reminded me of the first U.S. manned space flight, Alan Shepard in his Mercury capsule (Freedom 7), when I was 9 years old.  My mother had to pick me up at school that day and take me to the doctor because I had a bad earache and the nurse insisted on it.  She had been monitoring the news all day about the capsule’s progress and was not happy about being dragged away.  When we came out of the pediatrician’s office, Mom started waylaying people on the street asking them if Shepard had gotten back safely.   People were happy to tell her he had.  Of course, Freedom 7 did not even orbit the earth.  Shepard’s capsule went up and then down in a perfect parabola – the shape of our lives according to Dante.  A year later John Glenn would become the family hero when he achieved earth orbit in Friendship 7.

And now I have lived long enough to see rich people build their own spaceships in order to give other rich people the thrill that we all got vicariously and collectively through Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  President Kennedy hoped to replace the patriotism and energy of war with that of exploration, and it worked for a while.  But capitalism trumps all.  Young children used to want to be astronauts; now they want to be rich so they can be astronauts.  And instead of one satellite to look for in the sky, orbital space is so full of our discarded junk that it is becoming a hazard.

All of this from getting out of bed to see the eclipse.  I hope some daddies wrapped their kids in blankets and took them outside to see it.  Robert Frost told us that we needed to “choose something like a star” to look at because:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Sputnik was no star.  It was a piece of technology and a propaganda tool.  The American space program started with stellar ambitions and has ended as the plaything of the wealthiest men.  It was a different time.  Laika the dog was loved by children everywhere.  Heroes like Alan Shepard and John Glenn were not torn apart by the media as soon as the news cycle started to flag.  “Choose something like a star” Frost said.   Hard to do when light pollution almost blots out the night sky, but try anyway.  I had a beautiful view this morning.

Even after sixty-some years, I remembered Laika well enough to include her in a story, “What Crime is There in Error?” – part of my Metamorphoses  series.

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