Sunday, July 15, 2007

One Summer Night

I am standing in the pre-dawn darkness on my patio. The neighborhood is silent, asleep. From this distance, I can hear the low hum of traffic on the freeway almost a half mile south. The air is warm and humid, but the skies are clear. I see nothing up there, and they said it was coming. But I hear nothing, and see nothing, except quiet stars and the cavern of emptiness above me, above the roof line. I wait.

Summer nights are like this. I am a night person, and during the eight weeks of vacation, my body clock rotates later and later through the day until I am rising from sleep at noon and going to bed at three or four in the morning.

I love the night. There are no phone calls, or knocks at the door, or interruptions. I can read and write and think, and my solitude is complete.

This summer night is the same as all the others, yet something different has drawn me outside into the darkness. I think I will know it when I see it, but I am not sure, because I have never seen one before this night. It is warm, but I shiver with anticipation.

In my life I have seen most of man’s journey to space unfold. I remember the Apollo missions, and watching the grainy, black and white footage on my parents’ television when the astronauts made one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. I watched every blast off, and every splash down in the ocean, until the journeys became commonplace and ordinary, until people stopped really paying attention.

The thing about space travel is that it never becomes mundane. Just when you think it is “been there, done that,” something happens to shake us up, and makes us realize that the feat we are attempting is within the purview of gods and superheroes: to hurtle through space at the speed of sound. The fumbled, but successful mission of Apollo 13 was such a wake up call.

And I can remember clearly, standing in the hallway of my university, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode over and over again on a live news feed that terrible January day. And I remember the grim day in February, 2003, when Columbia broke apart over Texas. For two years after, no shuttles flew, no missions were accomplished. There was talk of scrubbing the program, that it had outlived its usefulness. Even though we were in the process of building an international space station, there was talk of letting the Russians finish it, or simply abandoning it altogether.

I remember thinking how could we have fallen so far? All those hopes and dreams from the 1950s and 60s for space travel: gone. Traveling to the moon, or through space period, has to be mankind’s ultimate stretch to go beyond the limits of human ability. The science, the mathematics, the bravery of the astronauts all were part of one of humanity’s greatest endeavors: to transcend our own limits and fly to distant worlds. These were dreams that before 1960 were best played out in science fiction stories. But we, in the late twentieth century in America, had made fiction real, until the point where it was almost mundane and pedantic. And then the inevitable happened: we were taken down. The shuttle Columbia fragmented across the heavens and fell to earth in pieces.

August 9, 2005, I stood on my back patio trembling in the moist warmth of a summer night. CNN had just announced that the space shuttle Discovery, the first shuttle mission since Columbia’s demise, would be landing not in Florida, but at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. I watched the tracking of the vehicle by satellites. According to the reports, it would pass overhead in mere minutes. But outside, as I searched the sky, I heard only traffic noises and the quiet muffled dreams of the sleeping neighborhood. I waited and waited. Nothing.

I decided to go back inside and check the news. Something, some hiss in the atmosphere, froze me in the warm darkness. Across the heavens moving south to north, incoming from the Pacific Ocean, traveling faster than the speed of sound, I saw a golden streak catapult across the sky. Twin sonic booms shook the neighborhood. I could see the glass in the windows quake with the force. Even though the shuttle was gliding to earth, the speed it traveled through the heavens gave the golden streak a roaring sound, like a jet fighter.

I followed the streak across the valley and over the hills of Sylmar. I ran back inside in time to see the space craft glide onto the runway at Edwards, a perfect landing in the dark. At five o’clock in the morning, the space shuttle was home.

Summer is the season for children. Summer days are spent in pools, and playing baseball. For me, summer has also been a time of dreams. I remember lying in my bed in my parents’ house, too hot to sleep, so I turned on the light over my bed and read until the deep hours of the night. I just took the night and swallowed the books whole in six or seven hours.

I try to live my summers that way now, although I have responsibilities and bills to pay. I stay up late and read and write and think. The house is quiet. Up in the summer sky, things are quiet now, too. But I cannot help but think about how we try to extend our limits, to transcend our weaknesses, to fly away to distant worlds only to return someday to our own world, smaller now for our journeys and what we have seen. In the silence of a midsummer night’s waking dream, it is clear to me that all things are possible.

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