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Heaven and Earth

October 18, 2011

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” – Lord of the Rings

One night last March, overworked and exhausted, I came out of the library just in time to watch the International Space Station rise.

It rose out of the hills to the west, a bright point of light, slow-moving. A few minutes later the space shuttle Discovery raced into view on the same trajectory, overtaking. One bright point, one dim: just two satellites, swimming in a sea of stars. And then it hit me: those specks were really vessels, and the vessels bore people — real, living, breathing, laughing people separated from the vacuum of space by thin metal walls. Maybe they were eating dinner, maybe they were looking down on us, little lights scattered across the earth — or maybe they were looking out to the stars, where robots have ventured and we may too, someday.

Looking up into the sky that clear spring night, I thought of Eärendil setting sail with the last of Feanor’s silmarils. These gemstones carried the last of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, captured before Morgoth destroyed them. Their beauty provoked war throughout Arda, the Wars of Wrath. One found its resting place in a volcano; one, Maglor, the best of all bards, threw into the sea; the final gem Earendil bore into the sky where war could not touch it. It sailed there forevermore, the Star of Earendil, and Frodo carried its light into Mordor, caught in the water of Galadriel’s fountain — a light in dark places, when all other lights go out.

The Star of Earendil was a hope for humanity because it was the last remnant of an unfallen, untainted world. The light was of the Valar; the silmaril that held it, built of elven ingenuity, paled by comparison. By contrast, the Star of Discovery and the Star of the ISS did not carry any divine light, only the hopes of humanity: for with every satellite that we send up into the sky we make our own Stars of Earendil, over and over and over again.

We cannot claim credit for the light. That belongs to the sun, and our thin vessels only reflect it. But that light, reflected from our satellites traversing the sky, reminds us of the cargo they bear: human courage and creativity, ingenuity, persistence, patience, calculation, and wonder.

Last April marked the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. Since Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for the first time in Vostok 1, many have followed. One is NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, who plays the flute in this musical tribute to spaceflight.

What do we do after strapping ourselves to several tons of explosives and blasting ourselves into the vacuum? We do science. We eat and sleep. And we bridge the void with music, two flutes entwining across two hundred miles.

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting.” – Carl Sagan

Space seems so far away, the night so deep, and the lights of the ISS and Discovery as far away as the stars themselves … and yet, 200 miles is a fraction of the distance between my school and my home. It’s a distance I could walk in a fortnight if I needed to. Two hundred miles away from us, right now, is the vacuum of space, and we do not even have the security of an airtight vessel. Our atmosphere is a thin film of haze held by gravity. I climbed to the top of the clock tower the other day and looked out over my valley and saw that the hills that make me struggle and sweat every day were only ripples on the surface of the world. All Earth’s topography, from the Marianas Trench to the top of Everest, is not even the bumps on a basketball — and already at the top of Everest the air grows thin.

We do not stand at the shore of the cosmic ocean: we are a plankton adrift in it. If, faced with this immensity, we can ever feel large, it is because our smallness lets us see the details in the grandeur, because our love makes us matter to one other, and because despite our insignificance we can begin to approach understanding the infinity of space and time.

Pale Blue Dot, by Voyager 1. Source: Wikipedia

Here we stand, creatures on a mote of dust in a sunbeam … and we have derived fundamental laws of nature, watched the dancing of atoms, listened to the cosmic microwave background radiation that dates back to the formation of the universe – the song of the stars – and sent our own songs out in return. If we, tiny as we are, can be so magnificent, how much more magnificent the universe must be when taken as a whole!

Can you feel the earth turning yet?

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