Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Feverish Dreams of Space Cowboys, Ray Guns, & This World's Last Great Adventurers

The great man is he who does not lose his child's heart, the original good heart with which every man is born.

- Mencius (372 – 289 BCE),
Chinese Philosopher

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- It's amazing what one thinks about whilst staring at a moon-whitened ceiling, alone with only the sounds of crickets outside a bedroom window and menthol-scented vaporizing rub drifting up from one's chest.

Jesus Christ! When was the last time I built a fort on Mars? THAT one...? Oh FUCK... how long ago was that?

Yes, it may have been the fever I had at the time, the body's own disinfecting oven, that marvelously complex biological reaction to things like sinus infections and influenza. It may have been the over-the-counter fever-reducers, or the sugar imbalance caused by the ingestion of about a quart of orange juice before bed.

Friggin' amazing what one thinks about, really, when one is ill and alone and trying to find something to think about at well past three-thirty in the morning, something besides the fact that that person is feeling pretty damned miserable.

And sometimes I just think about fighting off a thousand and one alien invaders in the dark with my cousins, sometime back in the long-lost 1980s, a battle complete with ray guns and photon cannons that looked and behaved, strangely enough, like ordinary old hickory ax handles.

We fought many a glorious battle as children. Glorious. Fought off entire battalions of invisible mutant warriors and transparent planetary raiders.

For some reason, despite a snot-filled head and an aching throat, I started to laugh up at that moonglow ceiling. Laughed so hard that the bed shook, that the crickets outside stopped chirping.

... What'd we make that damned thing out of, anyway? An old wood shipping crate, a few tobacco rods lashed together with bailing twine...

Oh hell! J.C. and I bolted down that old lawn mower engine, used an old steel coffee can for a steering wheel...

Dammit, I forgot that damned fort used to be our space cruiser, too! We were destructive kids, but, dammit, we were creative...

I reached out from beneath my sheets, pointed a finger towards the ceiling, and fired my imaginary ray gun, for old time's sake. My lips even provided pew-pew-pew sound effects.

Once again, laughter filled the room, rudely interrupted the crickets, shook the bed.

Maybe it was just the fever. Or the over-the-counter drugs. Or the orange juice.

Couldn't figure out for the life of me, in my feverish state, why that shit literally popped into my mind.

* * * *

When I was a child, I never imagined 2008 would look so damned much like the 1980s. My dad recently said a similar thing - he, too, never dreamed that, for the most part, the 21st century still looks a whole hell of a lot like the 1960s. Sure, we've got some nifty toys these days, but...

Hell, when I was a toddler, I remember watching that first shuttle mission live with my grandfather. He promised me that one day that could be me riding into the stars, that I really could grow up to be a space cavalier, an astronaut, an explorer of the Cosmos.

Three decades later, we're still flying the same ol' space shuttles here in the U.S., and I'm obviously no closer to the stars than I was as a kid.

The Chinese government, and the European Space Agency, too, seems to be more dedicated to space exploration than the one-time space powerhouse I call home. Even the Russians, with their virtually indestructible workhorse Soyuz capsules, seem to put more into making space exploration viable than we do.

Actually, at this rate, well, I'll probably end up promising the same hollow Buck Rogers/Captain Kirk dreams to my grandchildren one day.

Like my father's generation, I assumed that by now we'd have flying cars, regular flights to lunar colonies, and maybe, just maybe, real live heroes conquering the Martian mountain ranges for the sake of humanity. We were supposed to have viable, personable robots in every home, even a supercomputer in every garage. Cancer and other diseases were supposed to be cured, humanity united, that which lies in wait for us in the skies our only potential menace.

Instead, well, man has yet to return to the moon in my lifetime, we barely have enough gasoline to keep our terrestrial cars running, and the only Martian conquests have been virtual, with video-game Space Marines retaking imaginary, demon-infested space stations through first-person shooter games.

Hell, the only viable semi-autonomous 'Bots are the ones powered by remote servers, the computerized aggregators that are currently indexing this site for keywords to store for some search engine. And most people on this planet, too, can't afford even the most basic desktop computer.

That imaginary ray gun I had as a kid, the fondness for building space cruisers and Martian outposts in backyards that I inherited from my father? Hell, the only thing a kid has to do now is add a laser pointer to the end of that hickory stick.

... Of course, with the addiction to online gaming, the increasing rates of morbid obesity in today's lazy indoor-bound children, I seriously doubt those fat-ass children of the Industrialized World still have the imagination for such follies...

* * * *

It's been more than half a century since man first reached into space, with the Soviet Union's successful Sputnik satellite launch. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the first moon walk, four decades since a man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, hollered across the solar system One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.

Now, the sky is littered with satellites, wondrous things that guide our aircraft and ocean liners, allow us god's eye views of every canyon and mountain, even allow us to watch things like the Olympics and rock concerts live from the other side of the globe.

But, with the exception of the International Space Station, there are very few human eyes out there, staring down at us, watching over our world.

And those eyes don't include mine, or your's, and they probably never will in our lifetimes.

Given the fact that both of our mainstream candidates for the U.S. presidency this go-round place as much emphasis on space exploration and science education as your average golden retriever, well, our grandchildren will be lucky if there's ever anything more than a few grainy pictures from Mars and a tiny outpost in the orbit.

Or maybe they'll look up in awe at all of those other nationalities up there, in space, and wonder how the United States went from walking the moon to obsolescence in only a few short generations.

* * * *

I fell ill on a Sunday afternoon - a sunny, warm weekend day with nary a cloud in the sky. And as much as I hated to even make the attempt, while still feverish and strangely nauseous with vertigo, I did make into work for a few hours Monday morning.

And the only thing I did productive was to puke into a urinal, clean up after myself, check out some DVDs from the My Library's media collection, and to head right back home.

I spent the next 48 hours huddled in my grandfather's old flannel blanket, watching the entire fourth season of probably one of the greatest series ever, The Wire, and various zombie flicks - for some reason, films about the living dead just, well, make me feel better.

By Wednesday, the fever was gone and the head congestion was just starting to break up, so I decided to chance a half-day. At noon, I left the office to once again lay in bed and watch yet more DVDs on the ol' laptop.

On the way home, again, I suddenly remembered that old fort, those childhood dreams of being a space conquistador within the span of this third-gone lifetime. I don't know why that feverish memory stuck with me, why my subconscious mind had pulled forth and made connections to real space exploration, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong and...


As I opened my apartment door at just past two in the afternoon, I suddenly remembered why I'd been having visions of forts and space cruisers, of an imaginary childhood in the stars, what I'd been reading about online right before bed Sunday, out of simple curiosity...

The Chinese space program. Project 921, in particular, and the anticipated launch of Shenzhou 7, and the PRC's third manned space flight in the last five years.

I till don't know why I'd been reading about space programs, really, how I ended up surfing Wikipedia onto vague pages filled with advances in Chinese rocketry...

"Well, fuck me," I exclaimed as I flipped on the laptop to find a Firefox window still containing the entry. "So... somehow, reading about the Chinese space agency's history triggered all of that subconscious shit!"

"Fucking A, dude. No more wiki-surfing while ill."

* * * *

On the following day, Thursday, September 25, 2008, at 9:10 a.m. Eastern, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched Shenzhou 7 from deep within the Gobi desert.

Two days later, Zhai Zhigang and Lui Boming became the first Chinese citizens to participate in a spacewalk.

Zhai and Lui's feat marks only the 298th spacewalk since the Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik 1 more than 51 years ago.

And, as of this post, less than 500 people - less than 50 women - have ever reached Earth's orbit, a number small enough to comfortably fit every one of them on a single Boeing 747 aircraft.

Odds that anyone reading this will get into space in their lifetime?

I'm no statistician, but I'm going to guess those odds are a lot greater than the chances of getting a sinus infection in September.

- # # # -


Leigh said...

I wish I had feverish dreams of space travel and childhood memories while I had the same nasty sinus infection (which I am still congested from, week 3 and counting). It really does amaze me that we still have the same fleet of space shuttles we had when I was a kid. They are retiring the fleet in 2010, along with the International Space Station (from what my mom tells me). It will be interesting to see what becomes of our space program.

My mom works for Loral Space and Satellite (government run) and the electronic components she produces are shipped to the Kennedy Space Center and put into a room of cargo that goes directly to the Space Station.

She comes home with discarded items, like "space tape", which is a like bionic duct tape, and for our government's uses, has a short shelf life (maybe kept for 6 months) and is then tossed. For you and I, this tape could tact an elephant to the top of a semi at 90mph... so it's still usable. But these rolls of tape are discarded at large quantities, at $300 a roll. So space stuff costs a LOT of money... and really at our expense via tax dollars. I think people would rather their money be spent in education and health.

The few projects that NASA is aiming for are pretty ambitious, and I really don't see an huge interest from our government at this time. Perhaps with a little financial help from private investors and independent companies, those projects could ignite. Which I would love to see.

The child inside me would love to see a permanent station on the moon, or wo/man walk the surface of Mars. We can always dream... in or out of a feverish state.

Anonymous said...

I remember flying to mars and beyond. One of my cousins was a true Trekkie, and we were often off the ground. My grandfather's house had the perfect setup to be a spaceship, with a little alcove just the right size to be a gun turret and wallpaper that looked like buttons. Then it was off to the trees to look for aliens (aka female cousins) and destroy them with plasma grenades (pinecones).

Emily said...

I am far too claustrophobic to dream of space travel, but I do regularly (and bitterly) wonder whatever happened to the flying car and robot butler I was promised.