Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Saturday, February 01, 2003  

By now you've seen the images so many times over, you've probably lost count. That white trail of smoke arcing across a fierce blue sky; first in real time, then, with the capabilities of today's technology, instantly replayed at a fraction of the speed, and magnified as much as possible while retaining a viewable picture. Then the portraits; first the group portrait, then the seven individual shots, each face beaming with undeniable pride. You know the names by now, the more newsworthy ones at any rate, and their stories. You flip from channel to channel, to get the latest bulletins, to listen to the experts, to hear what the important people have to say - you've got cable, and the Internet, and you're a wired, up-to-date, concerned (but powerless) citizen of this global nation.

The first thought that crosses your mind - the "t" word - is almost instantly scuffed; though one news channel, that right-wing reynard, keeps repeating this fact so often you wonder if perhaps deep down they aren't secretly disappointed at the fact that this incident wasn't an act perpetrated by Them. And you think about the imminent attack about to be carried out on Them (They've gotten a six-week reprieve, not that it'll make any difference); you think about that and how, if at all, the current catastrophe will figure upon that one.

You think about other things, too. You think about how it is that an incident such as this can command so much attention, bring so much of the world to a halt, when comparatively, perhaps, it shouldn't. "In other news," 40 people die in a train wreck in Zimbabwe. Where? Oh, right, that poor country where that terrible man is doing terrible things to his people. Such a shame, really, something should be done. (But the cricket must go on.) What's that? They've recovered more debris? Turn it up, let's hear...

And now, in the late evening, you've shut out the world (but not quite, the box of tricks is on, you're still connected) and are alone (again not quite) with your thoughts, hoping to clear your cluttered mind of the soundbites, the sensational images, other peoples' thoughts and words, before the op-ed pages and news and discussion programs of tomorrow's media bring them all back, so that you can finally think for yourself, go it over in your own mind, and pluck your own meaning from it all. (And then write a post on your blog about it.)

And so, because you have to have your own opinion about it, because you have to think something (preferably something original, incisive and eloquent, with a good reference or two for extra points)...

"Out of this world." It's a well-worn phrase, perhaps not as common now as in earlier times, wrung almost completely of any meaning (you can thank the advertising men and women - "An experience that's out of this world! And only $19.95!" - for that).

But there was a time when it did mean something. Out of this world: utterly fantastic, original, one of a kind, perhaps even once in a lifetime. Truly spectacular, awe-inspiring, life-changing.

As commonplace as space travel has become, as much as technology has leapt and helped to make us all aware of that great big endless universe out there, with telescopes and satellites and probes as our instruments of discovery and inquiry, yet still, going out of this world will never cease to astound, I'm sure even the most inveterate of space travelers.

The majority of us will never travel into space. The best we can do is lie back and look up at the vast night sky, and the spattering of stars right across it, millions and millions of miles away, and be thoroughly overwhelmed by it all. We can't help but be overwhelmed.

Thus the idea of space travel will always grab the imagination. We will always be in awe. (Those of us who can afford to think about it, that is.) All the clich├ęs apply: slipping the surly bonds, the final frontier, out of this world.

Seven people went out of this world. Literally. And they didn't make it back.

They knew the great risks, they would have been briefed on them and trained for them. Maybe, if you believe that old chestnut from the early days of manned space flights, they had cyanide capsules, just in case the worst case scenario took place.

Even so, when confronted with their mortality as they were, the ground hurtling up to them at five miles a second, you wonder: what were they thinking, if they had time to think at all? Were they making peace with their gods? Concentrating on their loved ones? Were they simply in utter panic? Or were they, professionals to the end, doing their duty and trying to land?

In the silly little picture I have, they sit (or stand, if possible) hands linked, stoic in the knowledge that though they are about to be destroyed, they will not be defeated.

They know that they are not being punished for overreaching their human capabilities. They know that the religious myths - the story of Prometheus who was lashed to a rock for eternity for taking fire from the heavens and bringing it to earth; the story of those inflicted with the curse of speaking different tongues by the god of Abraham for seeking to build a tower that reached unto the heavens - they know that they are just that, stories that would try to teach man to know his place: on earth. They didn't believe them.

They dared to steal fire. They had the determination to reach the heavens. They did. And they are no more. And that is all.

posted by Jonathan | 11:43 PM 0 comments


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