Fifty years ago, NASA scheduled the first crewed mission of the US Apollo program. It would not take place as a launch rehearsal tragically ended with a cabin fire that killed all three crew members—Virgil Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee. The name Apollo 1 was retired and commemorated by NASA on April 24, 1967. Fifty years on, the Cassini Saturn spacecraft, a joint effort by NASA, ESA and the Italian space agency, has gone farther than any probe. Launched October 1997, it is making its final dive between Saturn and its rings today. The excitement surrounding the data that the Cassini will relay is illustrated in today’s googledoodle.
Two days ago Peggy Whitson broke the record for the longest time in space. She is also the first woman to command the International Space Station. Twice. Whitson holds the record for most cumulative time spent spacewalking by a woman (eight) and 5th for all-time spacewalking. Humankind has always been curious, and the stars a particular focus of our gaze. At once expansive and seemingly in reach, songs are spun, poems crafted and proposals made under the canopy of twinkling lights.
There is something about the awe-inspiring that makes us want to know more. But as with anything that is worthy of such wonderment there is risk – to approach it is dangerous. In recent history, though, information and technology has advance to such a degree that the data itself drives the curious, leaving awe at the door. This is why I love the poetry of Astrophysicist Rebecca Elson whose collection of writings communicates to much in its title, A Responsibility to Awe.
As human beings we have a responsibility to notice, to learn and grow and understand—and to reflect on all that we discover. What matter if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge? It is noisy, a clanging of discordant cymbals, an obnoxious gong (1Cor13)—if I do not look upon it with reverence, acknowledging that the mysteries are not my doing. And this is Love—to see and notice and come to know, to be present with the object of my wonderment.
So as I reflect on all that the science of astrophysics has learned over the course of fifty years, I ponder another poem by Elson, and invite you to ponder with me in awe and wonder, knowing the unknow(n)-able and the not yet:
Having picked the final datum
From the universe
And Fixed in in its column,
Named the causes of infinity,
Performed the calculus
Of the imaginary i, it seems
The body aches
To come too,
To the light,
Transmit the grace of gravity,
Express in its own algebra
The symmetries of awe and fear,
The shudder up the spine,
The knowing passing like a cool wind
That leaves the nape hairs leaping.