The full moon glowed, peeking out from behind the racing clouds. Glimpsed through the dark winter branches the surface, in all its mysterious pockmarked glory, seemed visceral, a small step away, a gentle leap into the night sky. As the clouds parted, glittering stars appeared, transporting me to places at the edge of imagination, beyond my reach as I stood rooted on earth with the wind ruffling my coat. I gazed at the heavens and dreamed of looking beyond…
My parents front room went through many iterations, but my most prominent memories were of two tall bookshelves that lined the sides of the bay window. Those shelves held all manner of things; the bottom sections were dedicated to LPs, the next shelves up were devoted to the ornate, and the rest of the shelves that stretched up far beyond my height were given to the many books of differing size and colour that are writ large in my childhood memories; I can recall the maroon, leather bound Readers Digest compendiums, a cook book or two, a copy of War & Peace and next to it a book that was signed by a certain Neil Armstrong, you remember him, right, he’s the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” guy.
Oddly I don’t credit that book with my fascination with space as I don’t think I ever read it. Instead we turn to a different book from the same bookshelf, one without a dust cover, a dark red tome that was heavy in the hand, it’s thousands of pages wafer thin, scattered with tiny words and sentences. Picked out in gold lettering on the spine were the words Selected Works by Arthur C. Clarke and it included The City And The Stars, The Deep Range, A Fall Of Moondust, and Rendevous With Rama. It also held, as it’s opening story, the first science fiction novel I ever read; 2001/A Space Odyssey.
The origin story was written before the moon landings had happened and led to the classic film of the same name, which Kubrick and Clarke wrote together. The novel is an expansion of that story; a sprawling languid story that begins tepidly enough but soon leaps out from the black monolith and into an entirely other world. I reckon I read it some time in the mid to late 80s, just as my early teenage world was expanding to include high school, a time during which I frequently took solace and refuge in the pages of a book. And so it was that I found myself following the journey of Dr. Heywood Floyd as he travelled from Earth to a perfectly imagined moon-base, my attention rapt and imaginative synapses firing like crazy.
I can remember losing myself in that story, consumed by the battle between HAL and Bowman, and whilst later books managed to similarly consume my attention, this was the memorable first. I guess it was partly because I was reading a ‘grown up’ book, one which dealt in both fact and fiction and also managed to tackle various themes along the way; other than the stories we’d been made to study at school, it was the first time I can recall wanting to learn more about something because of a novel.
Equally the subject matter tapped into the sense of wonder that begun when my Dad first pointed out Orions belt, standing there staring into the night sky, picking out stars as they twinkled above us. 2001 added to that fascination, as did the immediately fantastic worlds of Star Wars (not Star Trek*) which I guess is probably a common occurence for those of my generation, the children of the children of the space race.
After reading 2001, and because I was a bookish geek even back then with a cherished set of encyclopaedias given to me by my Grandfather, I started reading about the Apollo missions, tracing back to the first attempts to reach Space (technically achieved by a V-2 rocket by Nazi Germany), on through the Russian successes of Sputnik and Laika and Luna 1, before the USA entered the fray with Explorer 6 and the helter-skelter rush through the early 60s of Ham, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shephard, Valentina Tereshkova, and back round to Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong.
Yet with history only offering a distant impressions, it was the movies that exploded us all into space off the back of the phenomenal success of Star Wars and latterly, as the films started to dwindle, along came the Space Shuttle and once again we turned our gaze to the skies, our hearts and dreams open again to exploring the dark corners of the universe. My gaze has been drawn there ever since.
A few years ago I attend a talk by Commander Chris Hadfield, best known as the astronaut who recorded himself playing Space Oddity during his time on the International Space Station. He is an engaging speaker, intelligent but not boastful, and he retains the sense of wonder of his own achievements that is at once humbling and totally engaging. He spoke of watching the moon landing on TV and how it inspired him, he gave advice to the children in the audience, to aim high and work hard and they too might end up in space. He was ‘just a kid from a farm in Ontario’ but he ended up spending time in zero gravity in command of a space station.
I can remember leaving that talk invigorated to do more with my own life, I know I won’t make it to space, but that wasn’t his point. Very few people become astronauts, but that’s only half of the journey, the rest of it is exploration. Exploration of places and of your own abilities and aptitudes, all of which are a good thing to test and push forward. I can also remember leaving that talk and imagining what it must’ve been like for a child to hear those words, and how I hoped it sparked something in them to be better, to aim higher, in the simple hope that no matter where it takes them, they’d be happier in this world.
I’ve written here, many many times, about my own journey and my own challenges and changes. Some of them have been successful, some not, but that has never really been the point. Rather the point is that I keep trying.
Someone once said to me, why not just accept who you are? And it’s true that I have largely accepted many things about myself. I am bald, my beard is full of grey hairs as is, increasingly, my chest. I will never be slim, I will always cry at movies. I accept these as truths but I don’t accept that they are all of me. There is still more to learn, still more understand, still more to explore.
Looking up at the moon that night, I reflected on where my life is now. I was out with one of our dogs and as he roamed around I stood there, eyes drawn up to the nearest celestial body as it glowed there in the sky. It was a crisp clear night, the craters and valleys were visible to the naked eye, somewhere a landing module remains, the imprint of boots, an unfluttering flag. I wondered what it must have been like to stand up there, just as I wondered what it must’ve been like in those early, terrifying, days of space exploration, when the only thing you could do was keep going, from problem to problem, until the solution presented itself.
Earlier that day, three astronauts had returned to earth from the International Space Station. The usual photos were shown, all happy faces, the shaking of hands, and congratulations all round. But two of the images that stuck in my mind weren’t of the three people safely returned to earth, but of the charred, battered capsule in which they had returned. Why would you put yourself through that?
But then, why don’t I just settle for who I am today. I have a good life, a happy life, I’m very much in love, we have an exciting future ahead of us, and everything else is, as some would say, gravy. Why explore when everything around me, and within me, is good?
Well, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, delivered by Sam Seaborn (aka Rob Lowe):
“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave and we looked over the hill and we saw fire and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West and we took to the sky. The history of man is a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.”***
Just as mankind continues to explore, both this earth and our surrounding universe, so I find myself pushed to continue to explore my own mind, to challenge my own beliefs, and examine how I live, my interactions with the world around me. Because that’s what we should do given the luxury we have around us.
And that’s how things change, how societies evolve, how movements swell and grow, and hopefully how life improves for all. It all starts from exploring my own mind simply because I have the capacity do so.
* For my 21st birthday my parents got me, amongst other things, a small holographic print** of a certain space ship that most certainly was NOT in Star Wars.
** These were a thing for a while, it was a simpler time.
*** Whilst this post was not inspired by it, I did happen to watch an episode of The West Wing and this quote leapt out at me.