Greater Scope

Wow. Wow. And wow again.

In the rich variety of the English language, with all its nuanced shades of meaning, there really isn’t a better word. Not for a space geek suddenly faced with the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope.

WOW!

If you haven’t seen the images yet, make the time. Right now. I mean it, I’ll still be waiting here when you come back. The rest of us can tell you: They’re just. That. Good.

When I went to college in the 1990s, the first photos came back from the recently repaired Hubble. The world was floored then, too. Over the next two decades or so, we saw the universe as it had never been seen before: rich, vivid and inviting.

I still treasure those discoveries. But the images arriving from Webb now make Hubble look like a pinhole camera.

“It’s amazing how gorgeous, scary, mind-blowing and hopeful it all is,” one person commented to the NASA Twitter account. Someone else called the pictures “the most INSANE BEAUTIFUL things ever!!!” Amidst the brilliance and wonder of the galaxies and nebulae shown – so close, so beautiful – more than one person said how small it made everything else feel.

I get that. I really do. But I want to flip the direction for a second.

Because in the face of all of this, I don’t feel small at all.

It’s true, starting the universe in the face has a way of putting things in perspective. Earthly matters seem to dwindle by comparison: our prejudices, our conflicts, even the Avalanche’s third Stanley Cup. But it’s not like there’s a spot labeled “You are Here” where The Universe sits just beyond the fence line, the next-door neighbor with the awesome photo albums.

We’re in it. Of it.  Right here. Right now. Not a disconnected viewer, but a participant tied in to all the rest.

“It makes me feel more important,” my wife Heather told me after we’d both absorbed it all for a while. “Like there’s this wonderful, beautiful universe and I get to be a small part of it. And it’s part of me, too.”  

I promise, I’m not going to turn into Yoda on you. Not today, anyway. But I want to linger on that point.

It’s easy to feel small. Many of us do it every day. We face a world that constantly seems beyond our strength, with more and more weighing us down, from the personal to the global. And so we decide we’re insignificant, that nothing we do could possibly matter.

But when we look outward, we rekindle hope.

A fan of time-travel fiction once noted that we write story after story about how taking a small action in the past can transform the present. And yet, he wrote, we remain skeptical that a small action now could transform the future.

Perspectives in space. Perspectives in time. Either way, we see the connections. We see ourselves: not small or insignificant, but part of something bigger, where every tiny piece is part of the greater beauty.

Maybe, just maybe, that view can help us shift our bit of the universe. Right here. Right now.

So go on. Take another look. Let yourself “wow” again.

It’s amazing what can happen when you get tangled up in the Webb.

Moonstruck

Every marriage fits in one of three stages, all defined by your friends. There’s “Awww.” Followed by “Hey, that’s great!” And finally, there’s “Wow.”

Heather and I are now firmly in the “Wow” category.

We reach 20 years on Wednesday. Yes, really. We still haven’t hit the guideline given to us by Grandma Elsie (“After you reach 30 years, the rest is easy”), but other than that, we’ve racked up our share of milestones. Four homes, three cities, two states. We’ve survived ice storms, heat waves, chronic illness, and the delight of moving a piano into a second-floor apartment. We’ve had the amazing joy of seeing our disabled ward Missy come into our lives – or us into hers – and the heart-rending pain of seeing our cousin Melanie leave us too soon.

I’ve shared a lot of that life in these columns. By now, I’ve probably poured out enough words to reach to the moon and back.

Fitting comparison, perhaps.

***

OK, I’m a space nerd. Heather, too. But I swear, we did not deliberately put our wedding day right after “Apollo Season.” Somehow, it still works.

For those who don’t have the dates permanently engraved on their brain, the moon mission known as Apollo 11 launched 49 years ago on July 16, reached the moon on July 20, and then splashed down back on Earth on July 24. It was and remains one of the most transcendently amazing things our species has ever done, an expedition that drew the awe and admiration of millions.

So much could have gone wrong. Some of it did. Total disaster was always a real possibility, as close at hand as the unforgiving vacuum of space. So close that President Nixon even had a speech ready in case the attempt proved fatal and those “who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

But the triumph, the achievement, put everything else in its shadow. All the stress and the worry that had gone into making it happen are remembered mainly by the participants now, or perhaps by those who deliberately study them. For everyone else, it’s “The Eagle Has Landed.” A beautiful moment, never to be forgotten.

And not a bad model for a marriage.

OK, that sounds a little silly. But consider.

There was a huge amount of planning at the outset that still never felt like enough.

There were vows and promises that sounded grand, but would require massive amounts of work to achieve.

There were minor communications flubs that later became amusing (from Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” to Mission Control’s “Roger, Twank … Tranquility”) and major crises that almost upset everything (such as a difficult landing that took far more fuel to achieve than expected).

There was the eager anticipation of first steps, first words.

And while countless people stood behind them, supported them, made it all possible – the ultimate success or failure would be on the shoulders of the people who made the journey.

A big responsibility in front of the entire Earth. Maybe even a bigger one when just trying to patch your own journey together, day by day by day.

And most of all – for all the ceremony and spectacle, it’s that day-to-day work that’s the most vital. A marriage is not a wedding, anymore than a single television broadcast is a mission. An indelible record, yes. A moment to be celebrated, absolutely.

But it’s the stuff that happens next that makes all the difference.

***

We’ve long since left the moon. Maybe one day we’ll return and relight the fire that once burned so brightly. I hope so, with all my heart.

But in the meantime, our own mission of the heart continues. And despite everything life tries to do to bring us back to Earth, Heather and I are still over the moon.

One small step for a couple. One giant leap for a lifetime.

Spaced Out

I don’t dare show Missy the latest Internet sensation. Not yet, anyway.

Not if I want to preserve the speakers on my computer.

By now, I think most of you know Missy, the developmentally disabled young lady who’s become both our ward and our dear friend. When it comes to music, she’s never seen a volume knob she didn’t like, blasting out rock anthems and Christmas carols alike as though they were the closing act of Spinal Tap. Cool video? Even better – and possibly even louder.

So once Missy makes the acquaintance of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his unique, zero-gravity take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” … well, all bets are off.

If you’ve not run across Hadfield yet, you have my dearest wish that your Internet connection gets repaired soon. Recently returned from five months in orbit, the International Space Station commander capped off his tour – a tour already marked by frequent, and often witty, comments to the folks back home –  by recording an outer-space music video, with the aid of a three-person production team and a handy Larrivee guitar.

“This is a marvelous, marvelous experience,” Hadfield said when he first assumed command. “The only thing that gets me mad is I have to sleep.”

How do you beat something like that?

Now, I’m a long-time space lover. So are many of my friends. There’s a lot of solid, sober reasons ranging from economics to psychology to the value of the numerous spin-off devices. But in making the case, it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic reasons of all.

It’s fun.

Almost sounds childish to say it, doesn’t it? In a way, it is. After all, that’s what gets a lot of kids hooked on space to begin with – not the dollars and cents, or the need for a new frontier, but the fact that space is so cool. A world where you float into your clothes, where Earth turns into a marble, where your music video comes with its own special effects; really, what’s not to like?

That kind of joy is important.

It’s OK to do fun things. In an often grim and cynical world, it may even be important to do them, for our own survival. We’re a playful species by nature, and something about that play – the art we create, the songs we write, the things we build purely for the pleasure of building – gives us the spark to not just keep going, but to make the going worthwhile.

In a recent column, I mentioned the importance of doing what you love. This is part of that. If you have to put it into pragmatic terms, the fun now can open the door to the passion later. A teacher once commented that “I open their mouths with laughter, and while they remain open, I feed them a point.”

That’s not to say that the road to any skill or career is going to be bedecked with Muppets, rainbows and space guitars. Anything worth doing requires work, sometimes very tedious work. But it starts with the joy. And if it doesn’t turn into a career – well, you’ve still found something that makes your mouth smile and your heart glad.

What’s wrong with that?

“Decide in your heart what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction,” Hadfield once said to a student online. “Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that.”

And if that direction happens to include a space guitar – well, I suppose you just have to live with that.

I just hope my speakers can.