Monday, January 28, 2013

Lost in Space

Hi, my friend,

I've noticed on Twitter (yes, I'm on Twitter) that today is the anniversary of the Challenger explosion. I remember that...and I remember, shortly thereafter, becoming conscious of the fact that that I would always remember it, and that the memory would be in some sense analogous to older people's memory of JFK being shot--you always remember where you were when you heard about it. I thought it was the first such memory I would collect, but probably not my last. It felt like a very grown-up memory to have.

I was, at best, half-right, for I also remember where I was when I heard that John Lennon had been killed, and that was much earlier. That would be my first tragic cultural touchstone, but it is a very different kind of memory because I was very young and, despite already being a Beatles fan of sorts, I didn't know who John Lennon was. I just happened to remember that conversation for other reasons until I was old enough to look back and realize what it was I had heard. It is odd to think that even though I normally think of Lennon as before my time, a figure of history, I can remember the day that he died and that the day before I could have truthfully said, if anybody had prompted me to do so, "John Lennon is alive."

Anyway, it has been twenty-seven years now, since the Challenger blew up, since that day one of the teachers called an all-school meeting and said "I just turned on the TV to watch the space shuttle launch, and it lifted off the launchpad and it blew up." I don't remember what else he said. I remember feeling shocked and disoriented and oddly self-conscious, as though everyone might be looking at me and judging whatever it was I was thinking and feeling. What was I thinking and feeling? I didn't know at the time. I incorporated the theme of exploding spaceships briefly in the continual stories I was, even then, spinning, but I was so obviously a child attempting to process tragedy through play that I stopped. I did not want other people having thoughts about my feelings (especially not before I understood them!) and I did not know how to spin stories without sharing them.

And in the end I'm not sure how much difference that tragedy made, except of course to the people immediately involved and their families and colleagues. It changed the space program in some ways, but I don't think it changed America more broadly. I don't know if it really is a cultural touchstone, like 9/11 certainly is, a day that divides a people into before and after.

I am not generally much concerned with the space program, which may be one reason I don't think often of that tragedy I heard of so many years ago. I regard those people as the victims of an accident, certainly mourned by their friends and families, and worthy of respect, but I do not regard them as heroes, people who died in the course of doing something good and noble for all of us. They are not secular martyrs. Why not? I am of a minority opinion on this, I think.

I look up and I see the stars and the moon and I think they are pretty. They do not stir my curiosity much. I do not care whether there is microscopic life on Mars or how many light-years our galaxy is across. I did go through a very brief astronomy phase as a kid, and I have a good memory, so I am neither entirely ignorant of space nor ignorant of the impulse to explore it. In any case, just as I know your fondness for birds has its analogies in certain fondnesses of mine, I can appreciate that others might look at astronomy and astrophysics with the same fascination I have for ecology. To them I wish joy in the pursuit of a fascinating intellectual hobby. But I'm not sure it's more than that. I think the main use of the space program is to launch and maintain communications and GPS satellites and scientific satellites aimed mostly back at Earth.

I don't mean to be pig-headed about this; if you or anyone else who may read this wants to try to change my mind, then please, go ahead. I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again, and I could well be in the act of being wrong right now. But we belong to the Earth. We aren't just living on the Earth, we are part of the Earth, just as the rocks and atmosphere are. Yes, of course there are the grave practical matters, too; global climate change, conservation science, these are things worth spending a hundred million dollars annually on, they are worth living for and dying over. Satisfying an upward-facing curiosity? Maybe not so much. And the desire to explore the stars, to leave Earth as people, as a species? What would we be without Earth? Would one of us without our planet mean any more than one of my fingers without its hand?

Context, context is key. I was just talking to you earlier today about the idea of a life as a book, a life with multiple chapters, and what that means. What it means is context. Stories are context, too. We need ideas to tell us who and what we are, just as we need our ecological place, we need to exist in an ecology of the mind. And I think that explains the disorientation I felt that day twenty-seven years ago. It was a small piece of the sense of being "a generation lost in space" describes so eloquently in the sing "American Pie," which I've always loved and which is about yet another nationally relevant tragedy, and which I heard today, by coincidence, while at physical therapy.

These things happen, and interrupt, jolt, or, in some cases, destroy entirely, the sense of psychological context. The book we live in vanishes, the plot broken, abandoned, and for a moment, short or long, we look around and see the world without its story, directly. And that's why we always remember those moments.

Anyway, that's what I think currently. What do you think?

-best, C. 

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