Whose face inspires you, more than any other? Is it a beautiful woman, or man? Is it the facade (the “face”) of a delightful building? The face of a towering mountain? Or is it more cosmic than any of these?
Long ago, when I was a science-obsessed teen, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself then, but there was one reason…I felt that if I could orbit the earth, just looking down, I wouldn’t need anything else, just watching the planet turn and turn. It would be bliss.
I was, no doubt, inspired by Ed White, the first American to “walk” in space. After 20 minutes floating above the planet, White was due to return to his Gemini spacecraft. He refused. He told mission control that he couldn’t go back…it was just too magnificent. Finally he was ordered to return, and he gave in. He said, “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” When I saw the photos he took, I understood.
Later, I found my own version of White’s rapture. I would take plane rides, careful to get a window seat, and watch the planet roll by for every minute of the flight, watching cloud formations when they got in the way, avoiding bathroom breaks for fear of missing something. Sometimes I got a very stiff neck.
On my first cross country flight to California, I found myself sitting next to a five year old girl, traveling alone, going home to San Francisco. The stewardess asked if I minded helping her, and I agreed, a little reluctantly. Myesha was a brave little African America girl who was apparently unafraid of flying alone or sitting next to a stranger. I wasn’t a dad then, and I was more nervous than she was.
As soon as we took off from Boston, I gathered in the view of the harbor, then the city, and Myesha asked what I was looking at. I sat back, and she leaned toward the window from the middle seat, straining her seat belt. “Is that Boston?” She asked. Before I could answer, she squealed happily, “It is! It’s a city! Look at all the buildings!” She continued to strain toward the window, until finally the seat belt sign went off and I switched seats with her. Together, for six hours, we leaned into the window, spotting roads, farms, towns, rivers and clouds. Myesha shared my bliss, multiplying it. We flew over the Grand Canyon, on the way to a stop in Los Angeles, and the pilot tipped the plane a bit so each side could look down. The beauty was astonishing. Myesha looked at me and asked, “Is that real?” I told her “I think we’re dreaming.” She smiled and said, “You’re right,” and pressed her nose back against the window. After the flight, I never saw Myesha again, but I hope she grew up with her courage and sense of wonder intact.
Now, decades later, we can see beauty that was unimaginable then. We have images from the Hubble telescope that show amazing nebulae, the remnants of cataclysmic star explosions, and countless galaxies spinning through space, myriad shapes and sizes, sometimes colliding in spectacular encounters. And there are closeups of our own neighbors, planets that we could once only see as fuzzy discs. Hubble brought them into focus, and we could see the especially lovely faces of Jupiter and Saturn.
When a series of spacecraft visited these planets we discovered that their moons, too were equally spectacular, each unique and fantastic. Now, the Juno mission has sent back Jupiter’s close-ups…gorgeous views of an endlessly varied, ever-changing face, full of mystery and drama. Could there be a more fascinating, beautiful face than this, anywhere?
Well, yes. It’s the one Ed White saw.
You can watch the world roll by in this lovely video.
The story of my life as a science-obsessed teen, from the first moon landing to the first Earth Day, and beyond, is told in Some Way Outa Here. In part, it’s a story about where inspiration comes from, and how to recognize it when it smacks you in the face.