Ray Bradbury, in his Martian Chronicles (I think), tells a short story about an interplanetary traveler who, on his way back from a by-then-routine trip to Mars, becomes separated from his spacecraft somehow, and watches his home planet Earth as he plummets toward it, knowing fully that he is about to die in its upper atmosphere. The story reveals that he was eagerly going home to his family after a long absence.
Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a mother and child are standing out under the stars, and the mother is explaining to her son that his father will soon be home again. They look up to see a flash in the sky. "Look," she tells him, "a shooting star! Make a wish!"
It’s one of those scenes etched in my memory (even if some details might have become distorted with time), one of the vivid descriptions for which Bradbury has gained my eternal admiration. Irony almost always grabs me, and much of Bradbury points out the ironies of life.
Last weekend I thought of that story again as I heard the descriptions of the shuttle Columbia breaking apart as it entered the atmosphere, also on its way home. It’s not likely that the crew had those moments to reflect on their fate as Bradbury’s lone astronaut did.
And just this morning, I was looking through my collection for a theme in the music of Philip Glass, a theme I recognized in the sound track of the recent movie The Hours and which I remembered from one of his earlier works. I have an audio tape and a video tape of the 1983 movie Koyaanisqatsi, the first of his trilogy in collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio. Listening to the opening music, I pictured in my head the heart-wrenching scene that it accompanied—a rocket, fired from its launching pad then exploding far overhead, captured in agonizing slow motion by the camera following as its engine tumbled back to earth, all to the slow, repetitive arpeggios that mark Glass’s music. My mind transposed the scene from the movie with the scene captured by someone last weekend as the Columbia stunned the world with its immolation. There had been no suggestion in Koyaanisqatsi that the doomed rocket it showed had been manned; it was certainly not the shuttle Challenger, which exploded in 1986. The theme of the film was "Life out of balance" and it illustrated the extent to which we have become slaves to our technology.
I couldn’t put the tragedy of the Columbia into that same argument. If our life, our culture, is out of balance, which I agree it seems to be, the loss of the seven men and women does not illustrate that assertion. We humans have always pushed our limits to explore what lies beyond, and some of us have paid for our curiosity with our lives. We might lament the loss of these seven without accusing the space effort of tempting the gods.
The video of the Columbia’s demise was mercifully short. The single scene of the launching and destruction of the rocket in the film took three and a half minutes, and was accompanied by Glass’s relentless music. It will be a while before I’m willing to put the video on to view again, much as I admire the work. It’s too soon.
Ironies abound in Godfrey Reggio’s film trilogy. The second one is Powaqqatsi, a Hopi word translated as "an entity, a way of life, that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life." It shows the effects of modern industrial influences on Third World societies. The third film is about modern war, and has just been released. I’ve not seen it yet, although it was recently playing at the Michigan Theater. I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. Perhaps later. Philip Glass has made a place for his music in my consciousness, however, and I’m not likely to ignore any of it. His mournful background music for the film about Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Dalloway grips me the way Samuel Barber does with his Adagio for Strings.
All of this is related, really. Sometimes I feel so strongly about the pathetic struggles of humankind to find out why we are here that sometimes I think I can’t bear it. And yet I seek out the things that pick at the wound: the stories, the music—especially the music—that remind me, that make me feel intensely, over and over.
Last Saturday’s meteor shower, however much it tugs at the heart, was not like the bombing of Hiroshima or Dresden. Its awfulness commingles inside me with admiration for the courage and optimism of those seven people. They were not victims in the sense that the people in the World Trade Center were a year and a half ago, or that the ordinary people in Baghdad are likely to be soon.
A salute to seven astronauts. A prayer for the thousands who are about to die.
Donald Skiff, February 6, 2003