Growing up on the surface of the sun neccesitated a house with a pool in the backyard. So when my parents moved our family from Chicago to Tucson when I was a kid, we moved into a house with a pool. As a child and all the way up until I moved out on my own after high school I used to lie on the diving board and stare up into the night sky. I used to do it as an adult coming back to visit my parents as well. Tucson’s night sky is one of the best places on the planet…or it used to be when I was a kid, to see the stars. The climate is so dry, and the area we in which we lived so dark at night, that the stars seemed within reaching distance. The milky way was always visible in its season as a white band stretching across the entire sky, horizon to horizon.
Now I live in the Bay Area, which has it’s perks to be sure, but we have so much light pollution and just enough humidity that the night sky isn’t nearly as impressive as I remember seeing as a kid. The stars always have the power to impress me, but the richness of the desert sky I remember is no where to be seen from my urban Bay Area back yard. Don’t get me wrong…I adore the Bay Area, and I love living here in the “belly of the liberal beast,” as one conservative talk show host rightly refers to it, but I do long to see that white band stretch across the sky again. I even tried to find it last month when I was in Tucson for a visit. I couldn’t get far enough out of town with limited time at my disposal to get far enough away from the lights of the city. Maybe next trip.
The stars have always been a source of deep inspiration for me. I could spend hours on the diving board and dream. I used to wonder about the planets and the constellations. What’s out there? Why are the stars arranged in such fascinating shapes? I claimed Cassiopeia as my own because it’s shaped like a letter “M” for Mariah if you look at it the right way. I loved being able to spot Pleiades and Scorpio. The beautiful curvature of Scorpio’s tail is a perfect circle. How on earth did that happen? Why are we here? We, as a human race are so small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe. What is infinity, anyway, and how does that relate to my existence? These are the thoughts that occupied my mind during those times; quite deep and existential for a young teen. I didn’t realize at the time that the heavens were declaring the glory of God; the skies proclaimed His handiwork right before my eyes. All I knew for sure was that the skies inspired a deep sense of awe and gave me an inkling that there must be something driving the universe beyond random happenstance.
One night I noticed a tiny star moving across the sky. It wasn’t a meteor because it didn’t burn out. It kept moving steadily, in a straight line, across my field of vision. I pointed it out to my dad and he nonchalantly said it was “Skylab.” So I learned about Skylab, absolutely riveted from the get-go.
I knew that man could go to space. My parents awakened me in 1969 when I was four years old to watch Apollo 11’s lunar module land on the moon and I heard, live, first hand, Neil Armstrong’s famous statement: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I remember clutching Pooh and Teddy and watching the TV, not understanding fully what was happening, but sensing that it was Something Very Important. I hold that experience close to my heart to this day and I am forever grateful, beyond words, to my parents for giving me that experience. The tears flow even now as I write. It had, and continues to have that much impact on me, even now, fifty years later.
As I watched Skylab blaze it’s trail across the sky every hour and a half or so, every night during some of those years, my wonder turned from existentialism to something more practical; something that I could wrap my mind around more easily. What were the scientists and astronauts doing up there? What kind of tests and experiments were they doing? What were they looking for? What were they learning? There was no internet back then, and though I found pictures of Skylab from various sources, I never saw an image of the inside. I pictured the men and women up there as if they were in some sort of kitchen doing science experiments. This produced in my young mind the most poignant question of all: Could I go into space myself one day and do experiments and find out things that no one yet knows?
Stay tuned for Part 2. Coming soon.