At lunch today, between bites of salad and over the din of what must have been 25 children in Chick-Fil-A, I was reading the penultimate chapter of Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight. Dean, likely in her early Forties, was writing about the landing of the last shuttle, the shuttle Atlantis. Having finnangled a press badge, she was as close as any member of the public gets to such a landing, taking it all in, knee-deep in cordgrass, lacking insect repellant. I wish I had been there for the two sonic booms that preceded the landing, quieter than a 747 jet, only its movement through the wind to create sound. I wish I had been there as its oversize mass swept through the humid night sky to land, rolling until the words “wheel stop.”
Driving back to my office, I turned down a little used street, pulled to the side of the road, and idled there. I had a few minutes. I began reading again, captivated by this story of loss. Dean joined some of the few members of the media that returned to watch Atlantis and, sentimentalist that I am, I tear up, like her, at the sight: “As Atlantis comes near enough that we can make out details, we see that people are walking alongside it, men and women, wearing work clothes and jeans. They walk slowly and reverentially, pallbearers, and though I know from reading that this tow back is always done slowly, today it seems intentional that they move as slowly as a funeral possession.” And then she says that one person begins clapping, and then another, and then the most hardened, cynical journalists began clapping that hand-stinging kind of clap, hands overhead. The walkers, she says “are not chatting, not smiling or drifting off thinking about what they are going to do after work or what to make for dinner. The face straight ahead, their expressions solemn.”Even my vision clouded as I thought about the loss, about the end of an era. Sitting there in a center of hip uptown, I wondered if anyone cared, if anyone here, many of whom were kids when Atlantis landed, even remembered or knew.
Dean turns this into a meditation on greater loss. Reflecting later on Apollo 11, the pinnacle of spaceflight, on Norman Mailer, a writer who witnessed it, she says “What he saw was a moment that felt like it was going to be the start of a whole new era. I have never really tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside that moment, the sixties’ optimism that my parents’ generation is always trying to make people younger than themselves understand, not yet ground down into a cliche but a real palpable hope, an actual optimism that here, now, people could be different.” And then the kick in the gut: “For as long as I’ve been alive that idea has been demonstrably false.” And that, I suppose, is what washes over me, the sense of loss and the mourning over the human condition, and I can tick off the losses, the way the world has gone wrong, the way history repeats itself.
Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, for they shall be comforted. I imagine for a moment, idling, stuck in between loss and gain, a God who works in unseen places to undo the curse, to set things right, maybe to even take us to the stars. I think about men and women that still move among the echoing spaces of the Vehicle Assembly Building, in labs at NASA Ames, in cubicles at Goddard and Langley and JPL, who do their jobs and wait and hope against hope that something new will happen again, that men and women will again take to the skies. It’s happened before. I close the book, put the car in drive, and drive on. There’s work to do. I need to be about it.