Of course it would happen in the dark, which is where I saw all those old B-movies at the neighborhood theater on Saturday afternoons. One week it would be cowboys and Indians, the next Dick Tracy in his snapbrim hat and trenchcoat outwitting villains who, back then, still looked like villains and had names to match -- Pruneface and Mumbles and Flattop. What fun. But my favorite had to be those cardboard sci-fi epics, preferably with aliens uttering commands in unknown tongues ("Klaatu barada nikto!") just in time to save Earth.
Give 'em a happy ending every time. But then it would be time to emerge from the cavernous theater into the bright Southern sunshine and disillusion. I walked home scuffing my shoes, doomed to familiarity, knowing every crack and uplifted slab in the dusty sidewalk, every chinaberry-stained spot. I had emerged from a dark wood but not, like Dante, to see the stars. It was still day, which always came as a surprise, so many things had happened in the past couple of hours. On celluloid anyway. And in a boy's overactive imagination.
But now the movie was over and it was back to drab reality. Walk on the moon? A voyage to Mars? I knew that would never happen in real life. It was only a story, make-believe, a show for kids. I needed to grow up, shake myself awake, stop daydreaming all the time. Pay attention. Life was serious, life was earnest. Outer space returned to inner tedium.
Then, in the middle of the night, knowing he should have hit the sack a couple of hours ago, an old man clicks on his television set to catch the last news of the day. Which is another of his bad habits. And curiosity ascends again. Or rather Curiosity was about to descend -- on Mars. On exact schedule after having left eight months and 352 million miles ago. Now it was entering the Martian atmosphere. Naturally, it would happen in the dark, according to this slice of Earth time called Central Daylight. Just as it had inside the old Rex Theater in Shreveport.
The old sense of suspense returns. What the scientists at NASA called the seven minutes of terror had begun. That's how long it would take Curiosity to settle safely on the floor of a crater surrounding a three-mile-high mountain. The rover would be lowered via a very American combination of the most advanced rockets, an old-fashioned parachute, and a series of cables and pulleys operating on principles the ancient Egyptians would have recognized at once.
It could have been a collaboration between a mad scientist with a German accent like Wernher von Braun (To the Stars!) and a garage inventor like Bill Gates. The result would have pleased both visionary and tinkerer, Leonardo da Vinci and Rube Goldberg.
Seven minutes tick away, then at 12:32 a.m CDT a signal arrives. "Touchdown confirmed," says an engineer in the control room in a curiously neutral voice for History.
I am surprised by my flood of feeling. After all those moon landings, after those other rovers have been exploring Mars month after month, inch by inch, there was still this sense of ... amazement, joy, triumph, pride.
It was not the kind of pride that goeth before a fall. It had nothing to do with the chest-thumping statements sure to appear in the next morning's papers. ("If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there's a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now." --John Holdren, the president's science adviser.)
The feeling had nothing to do with the kind of pride that isn't easy to tell from the usual chauvinism. Instead, in the middle of the night, it was suddenly bright. All the day's fatigue, which had set so heavily only minutes before, had vanished. All was light.
Yes, there was pride. But it was not pride just in my country and countrymen but in my species. Man, puny man, a featherless biped found on a little planet third from a small star somewhere on the edge of a galaxy dubbed the Milky Way, had reached out again. An insignificant species, yet the one who gives significance to all else. What a piece of work! ("Hamlet," Act II, Scene 2.) Fearfully and wonderfully made.
Homo faber, Homo ludens, Homo adorans, man the toolmaker, the creature who plays and prays, was at it again. Man the voyager, man the searcher, was searching again. This explorer was still exploring. He might never find, but man would forever search, which is a higher calling.
Now man has landed again, this time on the red planet. Those old sci-fi epics from Hollywood's back lots turned out to be more sci than fi. A planet that has inspired so much myth (The Canals of Mars!) is now to be mapped. A foot at a time, an inch at a time, a blurry transmission at a time. Till the whole picture blossoms before us in full color.
I have a Mars rover of my own. About an inch long, the tiny magnetized thing explores only my refrigerator door, but it still gets almost to the top when I twist the little knob on it. Its six-wheeled, real-life counterpart now sits inside a crater on your friendly neighborhood planet, housing more scientific equipment than my spacious college chemistry lab did, waiting to record the next Martian chronicle, Ray Bradbury-style.
The little signals from Mars announce that man the listener has arrived on another distant shore. There is a kind of music to them. They announce that The Search continues. And that is what matters most -- the searching, not the finding. Not the triumph, not the moment of pride. There will be other triumphs, other moments of pride -- if only man the destroyer can be kept at bay.
Lord willing, insha'allah, and if the (dry Martian) creek don't rise, there will be other reasons for exultation, even exaltation. For there is something both lower and higher but mainly beyond human pride: humility. The kind that is true dignity.
Sir William Herschel of Slough (1738-1822), the German-born English astronomer and musician, shouldst be with us at this hour. Sir William would be in his element(s). Discoverer of Uranus, composer of 24 symphonies, he would be at home in both worlds -- music and science, Earth and Mars.
music comes in the middle of the night, like a still small voice. It arrives as a series of beeps, of electronic notes -- the music of the spheres in new form, a new song unto the Lord, as the Psalmist says. An overture to a new symphony.
The little beeps keep coming, ever mounting. They light up the dark sky like fireworks. Unexpected feelings overflow: excitement and amazement, exploding and exultant, and something else. Something beyond all that. Awe.
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