At 06:28 on an October morning, I stood outside my house in rural northern Minnesota, calculated the distance above the horizon to nineteen degrees, and scanned the western sky for a moving object, the International Space Station. I had plugged my zip code into the tracker on the NASA web site, and the ISS was due to cross my bit of space in two minutes, at 06:30 AM. It was still dark and cold, forty degrees. The sun was just breaking on the eastern horizon. There was no breeze, no sound. The nocturnal deer were done with their foraging, the diurnal squirrels, chipmunks and birds not yet astir. I stood on the lip of the hill that drops precipitously down to a plateau, and then to a swamp and a bay of water, and I shivered. I had not bothered to put on socks, just slippers, and was wrapped against the universe only in my terry cloth robe. I saw nothing in the sky except the predictable stars. Perhaps I had the time wrong. Perhaps I had missed it and the three-minute window had closed. I widened the field of my search to the southwest, then to the northwest, then back, and as I crossed again over the due west quadrant, there it was, rising like a tiny sun pursued by demons, relentless in its pace. It was so bright its fire could have come from inside, though I knew it was only sunlight reflected. I was startled by its size and proximity. As big as Venus setting on a crystalline evening, it looked round to the naked eye. Through my binoculars, though, it transformed into the shape of its solar panel array, a shimmering rectangle that garnered as much light as it reflected and powered the ship.
I had expected the Station to look like other dim and distant satellites I had seen at night, untwinkling gray dots keeping faith with the curvature of the Earth. Instead, it seemed close, closer even than the two-hundred and twenty mile stretch between me and it, a four-hour drive in a car on Earth, the distance to Minneapolis from my home. In a useless attempt at perspective, I had tried to imagine the line of that paved road anchored at my feet and lifted like a kite string up to the Station. On this morning, I kept the binoculars raised to it as it swept across the northern sky. When it peaked at thirty-three degrees above the horizon, I lowered my arms and watched it unaided, a star falling into morning.
My love affair with stars started in the 1950’s, at summer camp. It was there I learned my first constellations: Cassiopeia, Orion, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. They are the ones I look to even now, and I still use the two stars on the outer rim of the Big Dipper to lead me, five times up, to its lesser counterpart, the Little Dipper, and to Polaris, the twinned North Star. I used to wonder what it would be like to be out there, to be in outer space, and then, some years ago, I realized it would be no different than being on Earth, that Earth resides in space. I was disconcerted, could feel the desire of the planet to spin out of orbit, to careen wantonly away from the sun. Terra firma suddenly felt timorous to me, vulnerable. Until that moment, Earth had been something to count on and I realized that although I know the basics of the solar system—that the sun is at the center of things for us—that for me, for us, the sun is in revolution around us. The fantasy is corroborated with every sunrise and sunset, and is reinforced by the faithful rising and setting of the moon for which Earth really is the center of things.
My engagement with Earth, as with the sky, also began in my young summer years. I lived near a small lake surrounded entirely by marsh and swamp. It was there that I fell in love—in love with water, with slime, with snails, a dead mouse, the sounds of birds, their songs, their chatterings, the brush of their wings against air. At night, in my room, under the cover of darkness both inside and out, I imagined myself back down at the lake, wondered what was happening in the lake, in the grasses, in the willows that arched over both. In my imagining, the dark was benign and lighted by stars. In that lambent, celestial glow, I imagined I was able to see my way.
What calls us to the heavens? Do the atoms in our bodies, our brains, our literal hearts, have some sort of memory, memory of fusing into being in the wild alchemy of the birth of the universe, or of hitchhiking on a comet for thousands or millions of years, or rising up from Earth to cloud and riding down from cloud to Earth in the forty-million year rain that cooled our molten planet into the surface we walk on today? All of the matter we know of came into being from a “singularity,” the term for that which “fluctuated” when space took off in the Big Bang. It was probably pure energy, devoid of matter, though perhaps it was something else for which we have no words. The one thing we are pretty sure of is that something happened to the singularity twelve to fourteen billion years ago, and in the inferno that followed, space, time and matter were born. The first infinitesimal bits of particles bandied about, instantaneously forming and unforming, energy to matter to energy. Within minutes of the initial conflagration, the still-tiny cosmos expanded and thus cooled enough so that just-formed protons and neutrons could hold their own against the heat and could even marry into nuclei of hydrogen and helium. Those first two elements, the dominant matter of the universe, still maintain today at their early ratio of seventy to eighty percent and twenty to thirty percent, respectively. The expansion continued, and continues now, not into space, but of space, for space is the universe and it, finite space/the universe, expands into infinity which is not a place but nevertheless passes for space’s container. After three-hundred thousand years, that which was, is, and evermore shall be so had cooled enough to allow electron clouds to form around nuclei, making atoms. All the while, the expansion and the cooling continued, and after three-hundred million years, the cooling allowed the accretion of molecules and the accretions morphed into stars, and their nuclear ovens churned out the rest of the elements, iron, uranium, oxygen and their kin, the stuff of all that we can see around us: planets, moons, clouds, grasses, skin, bone, blood. The particulate matter of all that is now—the protons, neutrons and electrons of every atom—including those in the air we breathe, in the containers of our bodies, in the wings of a mosquito and in the ships that return us to space—the whole of every atom, was generated at the moment of the Big Bang. Our home once was the singularity.
Do you remember?
The space station travels at seventeen-thousand miles per hour, circumnavigating Earth every ninety minutes, sixteen times in twenty-four hours, in each loop passing through sixteen orbital sunrises and sixteen orbital sunsets. Looking down at Earth from the Station, the line between night and day is distinct, the subtleties of twilight not perceptible from two hundred miles up. On the daylight side, Earth is a blue marble, an aggie, with variations in green, brown and red, its continents, oceans, even the major rivers easily discernable. I am reminded of a poem by Robert Creeley: “One day after another. / Perfect. / They all fit.” Land to water to land to water. Perfect. It all fits.
Perhaps it is that simplicity that calls to me: from the perspective at the edge of our atmosphere, even a hurricane is elegant, a vast pinwheel mimicking the shape of our galaxy, its arms feathering out, as though reaching for more. It ignites in me a desire to see Earth from space, not merely in pictures, but for myself. I want to visit the ISS, to live there, the curvature of the Earth constantly at my elbow, my time filled with a mix of high-minded science and the putterings of life aloft, the machinations of civilization far below me. It is a safe desire to indulge in as there is no possibility that it will be fulfilled. The only qualification I possess is the desire, the only skill I have to offer an ability with words to sometimes parse the human circumstance.
I cannot know if my compelling interest in the Space Station comes from a source as far away as the origin of time, or as close as my childhood summers. I am certain only of my fascination with it. I started watching the NASA channel the summer after my husband died. I could not bear to watch the shows we had watched together, and I stumbled upon a daily Space Station briefing and succumbed to the lure of life at the rim of our atmosphere. Every night at 6:00 PM, a NASA commentator takes us through the day’s work on-station where the astronauts swim about in their tubular, room-size capsules. With easy push offs, they propel themselves as though through water, or they pull themselves along using strategically placed handle-grips. They work out three hours a day so their bones do to not turn to rubber, though even with that there is some deterioration, and they vacuum, for even in space our skin sheds the cells it is done with, the fine powder accumulating on surfaces as it does on Earth.
In my nightly visits to the Station, I come to know by name and face and persona the humans who live there. I miss them when they leave at the end of their six month tours, and watch with fresh interest as a new crew brings its own personality to bear in the weightless confines of the ship, or when an Orbiter—a Space Shuttle—crew arrives, bringing tokens and news and work from Earth. I watch, and watch again in replays, Earth-to-space interviews with the astronauts. Some are with actual media personalities who generally ask mundane questions: “What if you run out of oxygen?” “What if you can’t get back down to Earth?” “Did you watch the Army/Navy game?” It is the interviews with school children that liberate intimacy: “If you eat M & Ms, will they float up from your stomach and out of your mouth?” “Do you have different dreams in space than you do on Earth?” “Did anything surprise you in space, something you were not prepared for by your training?” Mike Foale answered that one. He was surprised by how bright the sun is outside of our atmosphere, nothing between him and it to temper its light.
When the interviews end, the astronauts return to their routines, working, taking a break, working, eating lunch, working out, working, keeping house, calling home in what passes for evening in space. Home to families. Home to Earth.
Simplicity. Elegance. Singularity. These are privileges of perspective. As I write this, I am a few feet from the spot where I stood the first time I saw the Station course overhead. Now, however, there is a wall between me and that space—the wall, the atmosphere, of my house. I have the window above my desk cracked open, letting in the fresh, hot summer air. A breeze makes its way in, toys with the papers on my desk, and raises the ambient temperature above the comfort zone. Nothing is elegant here. The hill and swamp and bay that I see from my window are astir with the breeze and with the life that inhabits them. A great blue heron rises from a mass of reeds, hang-glides down the creek and disappears again into the mess. The water around the edge of the bay is choked with bullhead lilies.
On this side of the wall, in my habitat, household work and writerly tasks await attention—the daily necessities of food and clothing, publishing projects, ideas for new writing. On the far side of the house, away from the swamp, a door leads to the driveway that leads to the road that leads to town. There, the neat grid of the streets is deceptive: the human endeavor of the planet is in disarray. At a time in the history of our species when we have the wherewithal to provide for every one of us, we do not do so. We peer downward as though through a magnifying glass at our individual, our cultural, our national troubles. Too often, we fail to see the horizon, let alone the circle our planet manifests in profound space.
I no longer watch the news. My abstinence is a cloistering of sorts, an unnatural partitioning. I am brought back to John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale.” In it, he has been transported to Nature’s lofty realm. When he returns to his worldly state, he asks, “Do I wake, or sleep?” Which of the realms is the real one? Does the atmosphere of our existence keep us in, or out? Could we better find our way in the unfettered light of space? Even there we do not escape our human skin: it sheds and the astronauts have to dust.