Spatial relations

    Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons

    I. On October 24th, 1946, a satellite burst through Earth’s atmosphere, snapped a few quick pictures and then came crashing back to the New Mexican desert, a smoldering wreckage sacrificed for a perfectly preserved canister of film. Hours later, after the negatives were hastily and breathlessly developed, scientists had their first glimpse of anything from space. It wasn’t much; the grains of the film stock spanned entire states, thousands of people rendered anonymous by the image quality. It wasn’t even a full picture — just a corner — but still, it was Earth.

    II. In the first picture taken from the moon, our planet is a tiny, marbled thing, not even a full sphere. Earth has phases when viewed from the space — I don’t remember the first time I heard that. If it were me, just me and a lawn chair on the moon, looking at that utter darkness lapping up against our atmosphere, I would think that something had taken a bite out of the southern hemisphere. Some indescribable black void is digesting our planet slowly, like the snakes that unhinge their jaws to swallow ostrich eggs whole. Whether we have crested the lip of the black beast yet or not, we Earthlings are all just a sunrise away from those intergalactic bowels. It’s okay, that’s where all the anonymous rebel pilots from Star Wars whose ships got exploded ended up too.

    III. When man first stepped into the void, saw it all firsthand, we were seeing it too. But this time we could hear it — Armstrong’s conclusive line, the buzz of intergalactic static broadcast over national television. The rest of it we could imagine for ourselves. Did the moon’s surface throb with each padded and pressurized step, the premiere performance of such an act on this foreign land? Did the space suits rub and crinkle in quite the same way when exposed to 83.3 percent less gravity? And what did the astronauts say when those headsets went off? Some exchange of momentous proportions must have been made, but something much more tangible and imperfect than stepping metaphors. With his feet planted on another planet, I can only hope that one human could turn to another and, in an awed hush, whisper, “You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”

    IV. I remember Calvin and Hobbes would lie on their backs at night and contemplate the stars, so I did too. Calvin would pontificate on about some lofty subject, to be undercut on the last panel by Hobbes’ witty and bitter counterpoint about the nature of humankind. When I lie on my back and stare at the sky, it is to lust after a companion to share in my profundity, a handsome body next to me in the grass. We’ll probably hold hands and talk about weird things we thought about popular culture when we were growing up. Being irrelevant in the universe is fun; being alone in the universe is not. That’s what talking tigers are for.

    V. NASA headquarters is nestled in America’s capital. In a city of 600,000, space scientists come and go as they please, dreaming up interstellar missions, peering through telescopes and generally using cosmic lenses to probe dark matter 2.2 billion light-years away. After a day in the office, they all return to their separate places of living, to perhaps sit down on a porch with their feet up and gaze heavenwards. If they’re lucky, squinting through the blaze of the pulsing and flickering citywide luminance, they’ll catch sight of some stars.


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