Fasten your seat belts, or rather Orion's belt. That's the name used for the three stars that may be the most prominent feature of the constellation Orion in the night sky. Orion also appeared in headlines across the country and around the world the other day when an American spacecraft by that name ventured farther from Mother Earth than any other made for human flight since the golden age of space exploration decades ago. It was a reminder that America -- and man -- isn't finished exploring yet.
Not since Apollo 17 in 1972 has the American space program broken free of the surly bonds of near-Earth orbit. Not with a vehicle designed to carry that remarkable species of lab animal -- Homo sapiens -- ever deeper into space. And more impressive, return safely to this blue dream of a planet, and Orion went 15 times as far: 3,600 miles up.
Orion is just the beginning: A space flight with astronauts aboard is to take off as early as 2021, unless the usual naysayers get their way. And they'll have plenty to say, as they always do when a space shoot goes tragically wrong, or even when it doesn't. You can count on the prophets of doom to supply a whole litany of complaints about such voyages: They cost too much. They consume funds that could be better used at home. They are dangerous and uncertain in general, if not positively crazy ... and so pessimistically on.
The list of objections hasn't changed all that much since the learned astronomers and numbers-crunchers at Ferdinand and Isabella's court advised against wasting all those ducats on some harebrained scheme of an eccentric Italian adventurer of unclear origins who proposed getting to the East by sailing straight West, of all unlikely directions. Talk about sheer madness. And yet today, those living in this New World that got in the way of the best-laid plans of this Cristoforo Colombo may have good reason to appreciate his fine madness.
Of all the perfectly sensible objections to such voyages, or at least they can seem perfectly sensible at the time, the one that renders all of them only abstract is human nature. Our species has been called Man the Voyager, and he will not be discouraged. Not as long as man is man. And sails on. Though not without detours, delays, and uncountable disappointments. A recent example: If only Washington had agreed to put more money into the space program earlier, we might not have had to rely on clunky Russian technology to resupply the primitive space station now circling Earth in sadly low orbit.
But the country is waking up at last -- to dream again. A monster rocket (the SLS) is to lift American astronauts to new heights in the coming years. It's already on the drawing boards. Wernher von Braun (To the Stars!) would be pleased. Man isn't just going back to the moon and landing on asteroids (and even a comet!) but headed for Mars, the fabled red planet of astronomers' dreams, sci-fi pulps, and the B movies about space exploration that I would seek out as a teenage fan of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and "Amazing Stories" by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin.
It was only to be expected that, as an old man, I would be watching as man's curiosity triumphed again, or rather the Mars rover Curiosity did. I should have hit the sack hours before but, turning on the TV to catch the latest news in the middle of the night, there Curiosity was -- descending, second by suspenseful second, onto the surface of Mars, no longer a fabled planet but new ground under our feet.
Of course it would happen in the dark, at least according to our slice of Earth time called Central Daylight, just as I had watched many a Mars landing inside the cool dark of the old Rex Theater in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Saturday afternoons. ("Plan 9 from Outer Space" starring ... well, the cast scarcely matters now and didn't then. What mattered was the dream, the fantasy and now, soon enough, the reality.)
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 made it all the way to a crater on your friendly neighborhood red planet, housing more scientific equipment than my whole college chemistry lab did. Now it's waiting to record the next Martian chronicle, Ray Bradbury-style.
The little signals from Mars in the middle of that dark night (ping ... ping ... ping) announced that man had arrived on another once distant shore. There was a kind of deathless music to them.