We live in a magical place, this earth of ours
We whirl around, suspended in vast, vast space
Seventy kilometers above a core of molten metal
Billions of miles away from burning stars.
I’ve developed a tendency to lapse into creating poetry when I’m trying to explain something that boggles my mind, and leaves me in awe. Things haven’t always been this way. I think, when I was younger, I saw miracles from a more ordinary point of view. Age does bring a certain amount of wisdom. Knowledge and experience has changed my perspective of how things are.
I grew up, as all children do, belonging to a certain place called home. It’s boundaries weren’t all that large in the beginning. There was the house, where I wasn’t allowed to leave unless someone went with me. Then, there was the yard, with it’s flowers and sunshine. Sometimes, the rain or snow.
I went to school, and there, I learned many things. My world enlarged. I came to belong to a state, a country, then to the world. I belonged to a certain group of people, my family first, my friends, my classmates, then on to other relationships that I had never understood existed when I was younger.
One of my experiences was to meet a man who had been to the moon and back, in the literal sense. Colonel James Irwin, Astronaut, part of the United States Space Program, did just that. He traveled to the moon, and years later, he came to speak at a lecture I attended.
He was one person who enlarged my world in a significant way, taking me from bland acceptance of where I lived, on Planet Earth, to just what it actually meant to live on this Planet Earth. If you glance back, he told us, when you are far out in space, approaching the moon, or returning from there, you will see something so miraculous that it will bring tears to your eyes. You will see a blue green jewel, set in the black velvet of space. You will see something so incredible that you will never again be the quite same.
Here I will backtrack a little. During the 1960s’s when countries were busy, trying to see which one could first reach the moon, my husband was involved in this same enterprise. He didn’t design anything, or plan how it would be done. But he worked as a technician, with General Motors, on the Apollo Space Program.
Each day he went to work dressed in ordinary street clothes. But, when he entered the inner sanctum of accelerometer land, he wore a white suit and boots, that covered everything but his eyes and nose and mouth. Accelerometers were part of the guidance systems that were used in space craft. Tolerances were incredibly demanding, to the millionth degree. If anything should be even slightly off, to the millionth degree, then the space craft might not come home as it was designed to do.
To me, that was already a miracle, that our technology even permitted such a thing. After all, when I was born, I was only thirty years past the moment when the first airplane flew at Kittyhawk. And now, we human beings were visiting the moon.
So, years later, when I had the opportunity to attend the lecture by Colonel James Irwin, I jumped at the chance. I don’t know exactly what I expected when I met the man who had been to the moon. I suppose some childish part of me anticipated he would somehow have a special glow. He didn’t of course. He was trim, obviously athletic, and he had a gracious manner that welcomed everyone. If there was any glow, from being where very few people had every traveled, it was only in his eyes. They seemed to look beyond the place where the rest of us live and move and have our being.
He described how it was to hurtle through space, leaving everything that had ever been part of his home behind. And then, how it was to walk on the moon, pick up a white rock, and know that no one had ever touched it before.
He was, in every sense, an explorer. Having been there, and knowing how it felt, and knowing that we could never travel the same journey, he tried to bring us what he had learned while out there. One of the things we could do, he told us, was to try to better understand just where it was that we lived.
Of course, we lived on Planet Earth, but did we understand where that was located. Did we know that the Earth was part of a planetary system. And, what were they like, these whirling, sometimes brilliant, always mysterious sisters of ours, orbiting around the sun?
Did we understand that we were part of a galaxy, the Milky Way, and that galaxy included billions of suns, some of them like our own. And beyond that, there were other galaxies, all spun out in space. Spun out, because, if science and astronomy have their theory right, there was a moment, called a point of singularity, when there was nothing. Then there was something. We live in a cosmos where creation seems to still be flowing out, creating something, where there has been nothing, if the scientists have their theories right.
Of course, this new theory, to which most scientists now subscribe replaced an older one. It was one time thought that all things had existed forever, and that there had never been a moment of creation. But most astronomers now believe, from all their measurements, and all their best intuition, that this theory belongs in the junk heap of human knowledge.
There seems to be a moment when creation began. Many of the best scientific minds now concur with that theory. David Hawkings, recognized as perhaps the best mind of all, in the field of physics, has agreed with that. Many people are familiar with who he is. He sits in a wheel chair, a victim of a disease which has taken away his ability to move, and to speak with his own voice, but not the ability to think. He thinks and thinks in the language of physics, astronomy, measurements, and stars, and what he has come up with agrees with that moment of singularity, a moment in which there was nothing, and then there was something.
Science refers to it as the point of singularity. People of faith believe it’s the moment God began creating all things. Think of it as you will. Science appears to have established that it actually happened. In fact, over the past half century, science itself has often turned around, from measuring all things, to standing in awe of many things.
But, I’m digressing from what I wanted to say that Colonel James Irwin wanted to tell us about his trip to the moon, and what it meant to him. Some of his own awe inspired feelings came from an understanding of tolerances. While my husband may have been dealing with a millionth of an inch on an accelerometer, while he earned his paycheck, making certain the tolerance didn’t exceed that incredible measurement, Colonel Irwin sat, marveling at other tolerances. No doubt, he was relieved to find that the Apollo Space Program had come through, and that astronauts did come back home. But, he was even more inspired by other tolerances.
And, here are some of them. Did you know, for instance, that we live within a spiral galaxy. For a number of reasons spiral galaxies are the only galaxies which may support life. It is believed, by science, that only one out of a hundred galaxies meet this definition. Stars exist within galaxies. Our sun is a star. Ninety five percent of all stars are too small and cold to support a functional solar system. The distance that we are from our own sun is of crucial importance.
We are beings who exist through the beneficence of water. If our earth were any nearer, or any farther, from the sun, our water would not exist in a liquid state. There are so many variables which require exact tolerances for life to exist, that it would take a very long time to quote them all. Our earth has just the right land masses, and the exact tilt to enable the necessary mixing of gases, and to provide for the right temperatures.
One scientist has estimated that the probabilities for a life supporting world to exist is one in one hundred fifty thousand million million. And this figure includes only conditions necessary to support life on earth. It does not include all the other precise chemical balances which permit complex codes for DNA and RNA.
Now, all of this seems very different from the popular concept of space which is out there in the world today. Captain Kirk floats off on the Star Ship Enterprise. Between breakfast and dinner, he encounters life, where no man has ever been before. In actual fact, we are approximately 2.2 million light years away from a nearby galaxy, called Andromeda. In real terms, if we were to send a message, not a person, and send it by radio signal, we would have to wait more than four million years to receive an answer. And, radio waves are fast. They are able to orbit the earth over seven times in one second.
Cold and silence exist between stars. And darkness. In considering such things, the mind grows almost cold and frozen itself. It is all too big, too overwhelming. So, just as Colonel Irwin did, we come back to our own world. We do that with thanksgiving, and with awe, just as he did.
Opaline Marks is the pen name of Opal Markiewicz, a writer of novels, short stories and nonfiction essays.