Last week, an unmanned spaceship named New Horizons, nine months after departing Earth, zipped within 8,000 miles of our last planet, and continued on toward … well, we’re really not sure what it will find. But that’s the point of such trips, isn’t it.
In the same week, while peering through a telescope we’ve stationed about 93 million miles from the site of a certain well-known terran battlefield, we found, a mere 1,400 light-years from the same battlefield, a planet that might support life as we know it. Imagine a civilization out there staring back at this blue marble we are riding, wondering whether anyone lives here.
I’ve always been interested in space travel. The vastness of space is intriguing, to say the least. Imagine flying for nine years at a few tens of thousands of miles an hour to scout a landing zone from which generations of humans not yet born may one day launch themselves even farther toward the end of The Universe.
If there is an end. I’ve read that, like Columbus sailing west until he could land on eastern shores, we might possibly head out of our universe and continue in a seemingly straight line until we arrived back at our starting point.
On a related note, Sally G – the name we have given our electronic, satellite-connected substitute for a Rand-McNally Road Atlas – did an excellent job of guiding our recent road trip to Florida and back. The journey included a stop at Cape Canaveral, where we watched a new GPS satellite head skyward on the lead end of a smoking, roaring tube resembling a road flare turned upside down, pointy end punching a hole in the clouds. I held down on the Nikon’s shutter button and recorded zero to 17,000 mph in 225 frames, until even the tiny glow of the rocket engines disappeared beyond the cumulus.
I have a love-hate relationship with GPS. Taking measurements from a handful of satellites Sally G can see from the Outback’s windshield, she can guide me to places I’ve never been. Turn by turn, she led us across five states to Orlando, our motel tucked among a galaxy of make-believe planets named Disney World, Universal, Epcot, Sea World and The Holy Land.
She never really tells me where I am, only where I am going. She tells me to leave the Interstate at Exit 68, but I have no idea where that is in relation to the rest of the world. It’s like being in the Navy; just follow orders. I was fairly good at that, if one does not count the times I made my life difficult by asking, “Why?”
To which Sally G replies, in the manner of my previous bosses, “Because I said so.”
I have always had good sense of direction, and could look at a map before heading out and just know where I was on the planet. Sally G doesn’t care where I am relative to where I’ve been or what I might accidentally discover if I turn left instead of right. All she knows is how to get from where I am to where I said I wanted to be. And she knows two ways to get there – the fastest and the shortest. Occasionally, I’ve let her calculate both and discovered the difference to be slight.
Out where there is no north or south, up or down, there remain many “accidental” discoveries, distant shores as yet unvisited. That is what made the launch we witnessed last week truly impressive. Some clever young folks figured out exactly when to punch the Go-button and how much fuel to burn to put that new GPS satellite in exactly the right spot so Sally G could use it on our next unexperienced earthly road trip.
Someday, our children’s children’s children will figure out how to navigate to what that telescope saw. I hope wherever I am then, it’s a place where I can watch them do it.