The Tree at the Top of the World

Some people root for sports teams. I root for geeks and freaks. Some people get so happy when a group of people manage to beat down another group of people. I get so happy when just one group of people manage to accomplish something never before accomplished by our species. Some people are amazed how a ball can possibly be passed successfully and gracefully from one person to another. I am amazed how we can cause something traveling at 17,000 mph to gently touch something else traveling at 17,000 mph, hundreds of miles above the Earth.

History is happening, all around us. Whether time exists, or is simply a trick of our human perception; what we do now, in all our accomplishments and all of our failures, will ripple far into any future our progeny will inherit. This leaves us with the most intimate of questions: to what are we devoting our brief and uniquely capable lives toward?

We all remember dreams of what might one day be, lurking in the murky memories of our youth. The youth amongst us enticed by simple and short-term fulfillment. The middle-aged left wondering if there might ever be more than, just this. The old, resolved within their lot and making the best of days. In the broadest terms of an individual life, these thoughts are our destiny when determinism prevails. When one billiard ball collides with another, ricocheting off three more, then bounces off a wall, finally coming to rest in a corner pocket, the game is done. Except for that incessant magic eight ball. Except for the scratch.

As you know, I have been tracking every detail of the latest International Space Station mission. In fact, earlier today the printer on the shuttle ran out of black ink. They had already used up two cartridges and swore they had requisitioned a third for this flight, but nobody could find it. Ah, the travails we must endure. Mission Control paged the people in who were responsible for printer cartridges to learn if they might actually be stored someplace else, unexpected, on the shuttle. Alas, the prospects seem grim.

I recognized the Capcom in Mission Control. I can’t remember her name. You can see the weight of years upon her now. She was an astronaut, and a scientist. The first woman in space, actually. She went to Skylab, the US’s first orbiting station. She is famed for her observational prowess, having made incredibly detailed observations on paper when the instrumentation she was intended to use failed. Her determination, quick thinking, and training as a scientist, more than as an astronaut, saved the experiments. Today, she was dragging in the printer cartridge people by their ears for her fellow astronauts in space.

You often hear astronauts talk about the vacuum of space. They think of their space suits as little personal space ships. They’re a little bit wrong, though. Space is not a vacuum. There is always something, somewhere, even if it’s just a hydrogen atom a few feet away. Our bodies don’t like that. Without something pushing down on every square inch of us, and pretty hard, too, our blood and cells would rupture and boil. And even with our sun distanced years away at high velocities, without the blanket of our atmosphere, or our little space ship suits with environmental controls, we would either burn to death from the heat, or freeze in the shadow of our world.

Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock STS-120 - Hi

But no true vacuum exists in space. There is always something, somewhere. From way up high, you can see a lot of these little somethings all mashed in together in what looks like a perfect sphere of mostly blue. That’s where our bodies work. All the little bits are attracted to one another, and they press on in. Before Galileo, objects fell because they longed to be united with the Earth. Nowadays they fall because objects warp the fabric of space-time, and they just naturally “roll” into each other. Either that, or little graviton particles shoot out between all objects, pulling them together. Who knows? And if space is just nothingness with bits of something floating around in it, how can it warp? Or, what is it made of, to warp? Surely if something is sitting in the middle of something else and warping it, there would be some degree of friction as it moves. Interestingly, there may be some truth in that. I don’t know what to do with the shooty little gravitons though. Then again, neither does anyone else. It seems to work on paper, though.

But paper is not space. And objects moving through space-time eventually end up someplace else, later. All the while, the metaphysics of mathematics helps us to control and predict, to varying degrees, just what, exactly, in this menagerie of unknowns might propel us to perspectives and understanding that could be considered at least somewhat more precise, even if not entirely true. For it seems that, for the moment, truth is more like calculus; we can get infinitely close, but never quite there. This is why you see all the bearded and aged philosophers hiking up their robes and doing the told-ya-so dance. Well, ok. Maybe not the robed ones.

Scott Parazynski - Tree on Top of the WorldThat is the metaphysical. But we like to touch things, taste them and smell them. We like to rub things all over us. We’re more comfy with that. At least, the 9 to 5’ers are. The other day Scott Parazynski got himself lifted way up above the space station to fix a solar array. It was a long, slow ride with his boots strapped on to a multi-jointed robotic arm proudly made in Canada. No human has ever experienced the perspective he did that day. The wireless camera on his helmet recorded what little it could. The view was wholly unearthly, yet at the same time, quintessentially earthly. Scott is a highly educated, obsessive achiever. “Wow,” he says. “Wow,” again. He has seen plenty of space movies and documentaries. “There’s no ways words can describe this. At least my words.” He was being held far above the space station, looking down upon it, floating high above an intensely glowing blue and white orb. “I hope you can see this.”

Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock STS-120After the repairs were completed, a momentous historical event largely unappreciated by all the creatures milling about so far below, he was riding back down in darkness to where his friend Doug (Wheels) was waiting for him below. In the black outline of the earth, small but intensely bright flashes of light could be seen as lightning in the atmosphere discharged to the surface of the planet. During the inventory of his equipment he pulled out the “hockey stick” wrapped in non-conductive tape which he had used to both pull the array closer to him for work, and to keep it away to avoid electrocution. The mission commander said over the radio, “that hockey stick’s been your best friend out there today.” “Yeah, well, Wheels is here,” Scott said. “Yeah, Wheels is your best friend,” agreed the commander, and they all got a little mushy.

Perched on high with the sun burning over the delicate slope of our Earth, Scott’s helmet camera crackled with interference. “This is God’s eye view.” I do not know if Scott is religious, but somehow I doubt so, in the traditional senses. Maybe some things we end up seeing are just too large for us to grasp. I can only imagine, looking down upon such immensity, breathing in my self-contained bubble of Earth’s atmosphere, with my best friend Wheels looking up, saying, you look good up there… I can only imagine: our humanity is all we really have. And look what we’ve done, we wild mixings of debris bound together on such a lush oasis. Look what we can do!

We have so much more to experience and to learn. I do not believe that, deterministically, we are trapped within the ends that so often appear inescapable, both as a species, and even individually. We must not allow the cynicism and pessimism wrapped so tightly around us, blind us from our far greater potentials. We must look higher than one group of people dominating another. The higher places are already there. It just takes us looking. Together.

Clay, the goofy but lovable astronaut, in space for several months now, left the station early this morning to return to us here. He could hardly speak for the tears, and he was not the only one of them so afflicted. “What we are doing is very important for humankind. It’s worth the risks and worth the cost. […] Constantly look toward the heavens, for it is there that you’ll see your future. […] Thank you. You are indeed the best and the brightest that our world has to offer.”

In the past few years, inspiration has been rare. We devote enormous resources, both collectively and individually, toward selfish, small and short-sighted gains. We actively destroy each other and the world around us with indifference, through weak or erroneous rationalizations. We should not learn to be content with such things. We should not allow those with myopic and selfish needs control the destiny of humanity. The best and brightest of our world… look what we have accomplished! Can we, any of us, ever stop becoming our best selves, and our brightest? What does it mean, for ourselves and for others, if we do?

But in the meantime, our latest band of explorers and builders are heading back home to the biosphere from which we emerged. The air around us will blanket our bodies, holding us within our living forms. The Earth will sprout nutrients. And at night, we will look far into star-filled emptiness, perhaps catching a glimpse of our home away from home. A place where we might gain the perspective to look back upon ourselves, seeing far more than we imagine. A place where we are, not quite yet.

“It was like I had climbed a tree, on the top of the world.”



  • ISS-16 is the first International Space Station crew commanded by a woman. Peggy Whitson says she’s happy to play this “special” role for women, but it is apparent from interviews that such a distinction upon her personally is better considered irrelevant. As with nearly all minority groups who gain institutional validation, they are quite content to leave behind any arbitrary distinctions that had previously caused them to be considered separate. As such, I mention this not because Peggy is the first woman to command the ISS. I mention this to express my sympathy and empathy for her having to endure endless and nearly unanswerable questions like, “what’s it like to be the first woman commander?” while her primary concerns are rightly focused elsewhere.
  • Also, George and Barbara Bush, the parents of our reviled President, visited NASA’s Mission Control while STS-120 was docked. The shuttle crew was loading garbage that had accumulated aboard the ISS onto the shuttle for return and proper disposal on earth. “Why can’t you just throw it…” she started to ask, then stopped, as an awkward pause ensued.