It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, Friday of a long weekend, a pause in the onward rush of the week’s business. I’m sitting at my computer, thinking about our absurdly difficult national anthem and the many ways we manage to mangle it. I’m remembering, too, a certain Sunday in July 1969 when Apollo 11’s Lunar Module landed on the moon.
I’m remembering the disastrous fire during the preparation of Apollo 1 , the heroism of the crew of Apollo 13, and the tragic loss of the Challenger and the Columbia space shuttles. I was in high school when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik; I remember looking for it in the night sky. More than fifty years later, dreams are faded. After fifty years of travel beyond earth’s atmosphere, and three years beyond the end of the shuttle program, we hitch what dreams we have to unmanned probes of distant planets, amazing telescopes, and space stations orbiting the earth.
I’ve always loved science fiction – fiction based on extrapolation of science and social science, not improbably fantasy – and, like many of my generation, hoped for more from our exploration of space. We who had dreamed of space travel and the exploration of other planets saw the abandonment of Apollo and the shuttle program as just that, abandonment of a precious dream. Of course research continues, and that research is essential for any exploration of space that may come. But still . . . .
In a way, we mangle our programs and our dreams in the same way we mangle the national anthem. Our intentions are good, but the task is hard, and we slip up unintentionally or out of sheer inability. But we still cling to the difficult tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sing it as best we can. Maybe, if we cling to the difficult dream of space exploration, humankind will someday travel among the stars as well as sing about them.
Here are two poems about the dream. The first was written not long after the first landing on the moon; we had been working as corner crew at a Sports Car Club of America road race at Road America in Wisconsin. The second poem was written at the height of the space shuttle program. Somehow, with the World Cup football matches dominating much of the world’s attention on this day, it seems particularly appropriate.
Sunday Afternoon at Road America
July 20, 1969
The day it happened the cars were setting records
And the heat lifted up from the track
To our uneven station on the gravel-hill.
Sitting among the old bones of the ice,
Cradled in the moraine whose hills
Still testify its passing,
We rummaged in the smooth rocks and found
Evidence of life.
The racecars slipped by
On long cords of sound, ingeniously wound
Among the hills; we could see the eyes
Of the drivers behind their goggles, and their hands
Working the gloves against the tight wheel.
The returning cars bound us to the world
Stretched out behind our hill, a world sharpened
And made thin by the metal voice of the loudspeaker
Announcing the leaders and their times
That broke all records.
Then, in a lull,
Just after we found the brachiopod
And about the time we finally broke open
The rock that was not a geode,
The tin voice of the loudspeaker announced
That men floated on a dry sea of the moon.
Then the racing began again,
And we settled back against the smooth old rocks,
A shelter from the hot sky.
Later that night, driving home, we heard
Voices from the yellow disk riding overhead
And the oiled voices of the nations,
Carefully recorded for posterity.
Over the radio, the moon became a piece of Texas
And the universe a warm womb for humankind.
Out on the long moraine, night closed in
With the same dark that visited the ice,
While the yellow moon slipped across the sky,
Binding us apart with the cord of ourselves.
In the Days of Apollo
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.” W.B. Yeats, “Easter 1916”
The old words come to me now,
For no reason but memory of the old days
When Apollo capered on the moon.
The skies were much friendlier then than now,
The moon much closer, and poetry fresh and new –
Not some pastiche of half-remembered lines.
For a time we owned the moon; for a brief while
Approached the outer planets,
And regarded eagerly the depths beyond.
The beauty of that terrible thought is lost,
Diminished in time and space,
And the powers have turned their minds to commerce.
All too aware of danger and death, of lost shuttles,
We venture now only so far as necessity takes us –
Necessity of vacuum, free fall, lack of life.
Jupiter and Saturn are returned to science fiction;
Mars lies forgotten in its own dust.
Overhead, the moon floats again at a great distance,
While lesser satellites beam football games at the world.