There can be no contradiction between paired images, only connection, and so little that is true will conform to the expectations of available language. There is a certain sadness that smells of oranges––or nectarines? and it holds a horizon inside itself, complete with sunrises and sunsets that only one at a time may witness. The challenge is how awe wants company to verify its origin, as something other than madness. Lacking any, a witness is burdened with a weight that denies its own release.
Since Cain slew Abel, she considered hers a threefold role: mother, priestess, aide. Faithful service to each has meant time spent gazing up to question the sun, moon, and stars in concert with the evolving hour at hand––not as objects or territories to be conquered or subdued, but with the reverence and awe she comes to hold as original truths. Her wish: to be a living torch, bearing these, that tomorrow’s children might see and be awed in turn. To look as she does, it will be impossible for them not to feel the moral impact of the moment and be awed by all that is and may yet be.
Today is the birthday of groundbreaking astronomer Dorothea Klumpke Roberts (1861-1942). This post is composed of ideas and images from a 1919 article she published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, “Woman’s Work in Astronomy.”
One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation . . . Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said. Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted.
On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, followed shortly after by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins maintained a solitary lunar orbit. The world watched. Meanwhile, the mother of Vivian Strong, shot dead by police at fourteen, was grieving. It’s the age of the Cold War space race, also Stonewall. Demonstrators in the U.S. and worldwide call for civil rights, an end to war, racial justice, housing and labor reforms. The U.S. has been at war with Vietnam for fourteen years at this point, and it will not end for another six. Millions dead, scorched earth. It’s the age of the Biafran war in West Africa, The Troubles in Ireland, a Lybian coup underway, the Weathermen gathering in Chicago, the Rozariazo in Argentina, the first U.S. draft lottery since WWII about to begin. John marries Yoko and Chicago Police officers shoot Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among others. Medgar, Malcolm, King: all have been assassinated, now. Blind Faith rocks Hyde Park, Franco closes the border, The Stones release Let it Bleed. In a talk to teachers delivered that year, James Baldwin opens with an acknowledgement of the moment at hand. Let’s begin, he says, by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. The following is a morning meditation on this moment and its lasting relevance to ours, culled from readily-accessible details about the Apollo 11 mission.
One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation, one remarked. Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said. Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted. It got only two inches in. There was fear the flag would topple on camera or fly off. It did neither in the moment. I am not sure where it is now. Salute, phone call, prayer. Then a sixty-meter walk, photographs. Core samples collected: here’s soil, plus rocks. Three new minerals discovered, later found also on earth. Now a plaque. We come in peace, if not in peacetime. There was a speech prepared in the event of disaster; the ritual would mimic a burial at sea. Each, of course, had their own, If I should die–
Meanwhile, one orbited the moon alone. Not since Adam, he said, regarding the extremes of his solitude. Although, it’s worth noting that accounts of Adam suggest he was surrounded by a kingdom of earthlings preceding his arrival, not to mention sunlight.
The return was fraught, there was a long list of disaster scenarios. It landed upside-down, for example, but there was a plan for this. Then came quarantine, then the parade, prayers of thanksgiving, cheers.
It is possible to be awed, as Abernathy was, by a magnificent achievement, while simultaneously enraged that it was pursued while other relatively simple requests were denied. Care for the sick, shelter: for children, fathers, veterans, grandmothers. Food, some relief for the caged. Some end to the caging of bodies. Some recognition of the unnamed dead. To ask, voice hoarse with rage and grief, who commands this mission, who makes this leap? Just as it is possible to frame a gorgeous picture of a newborn and place it on a distant desk, in a corner office, to profess love and mean it, but never change a diaper, never walk a wailing body back to peace.
Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?
––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!
–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;
how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;
and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;
for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,
assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;
the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes
––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.
Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett.