»  National Review Online

May 10th, 2001

  The Thin Gnat-Voices


Some years ago I was driving across the high desert of western Arizona at night. Needing to stretch my legs, I pulled off the road, shut down my engine and lights, got out of the car and walked a little way into the desert. It was an exceptionally clear night and there was little traffic. What immediately got my attention was the stars. So many stars! The sky was teeming with them. I have read somewhere that the most stars you can see on a clear night is three thousand. That can't be right, at least not up there in the high Mojave. There must have been ten thousand, at least. I couldn't even imagine counting them. Great drifts and swathes and swarms of stars, the Milky Way itself glowing clear and bright behind them. Most sensational of all, the air was so clear and still — the "seeing," as astronomers say, so good — I could actually make out new stars winking into view on the eastern horizon, as the earth turned towards them.

I stood and watched a while, not much longer than it took me to smoke a cigarette, then turned back to my car, to the humdrum business of life. It wasn't any kind of revelation or mystical experience, but it stuck in my mind, the awe and the beauty of it — those stars flickering into existence down on the horizon, giving such a strong impression of the great planet actually turning under my feet — I could almost feel the rumble of mighty gears as it turned, bearing me for ever eastward under the stars. Science fiction writers have a phrase I like: they talk about "the sense of wonder." That's what I got that night, full force: the sense of wonder. It wasn't much, a few minutes standing there in the desert looking at the stars, but I have never forgotten it.

Rupert Brooke must have had a similar experience one night in the fall of 1908. Being a great poet, though, he made something beautiful out of it.

The stars, a jolly company,
I envied, straying late and lonely;
And cried upon their revelry:
"O white companionship! You only
In love, in faith unbroken dwell,
Friends radiant and inseparable!"

All this came to mind on Sunday as Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, returned to earth. Tito had paid 20 million dollars to the Russian space agency to put him into orbit for six days on the International Space Station. NASA had refused to do it, and indeed seems to have tried their best to scotch the whole adventure. NASA chief Daniel Goldin is still sneering at Tito, noting that the space station is not "an orbiting dude ranch."

To which the correct response is: Pity. If the space station were an orbiting dude ranch, it might make some money. Dude ranching is quite profitable; NASA, on the other hand, is a financial black hole. Yeah, yeah, we need NASA, or something equivalent. There is a great deal of government business to do in space, mostly of a military kind: American Spectator had a special issue on this topic in November last year. But leaving space exploration entirely in the hands of a big, unwieldy, 1960s-style federal bureaucracy is the equivalent of giving the 15th-century Vatican a monopoly on ocean-going ships. There is stuff do be done in space, and money to be made, in ways that NASA's College of Cardinals could not dream of — or, if they did dream of them, that they could never explain to the congressional pork distributorship that supplies their funds.

Tito described his time in space as "a euphoric experience … paradise … the time of my life." I can well believe it. What a thing to do! I'd do it myself, if I had the money. So would my uncle Fred Littlehales, though he is much too old now. It was uncle Fred who introduced me to science fiction, when I was a child. He was a fan himself, and had some fascinating books. My favorite was The Conquest of Space, a collection of those wonderful paintings Chesley Bonestell did for Life magazine in the 1940s, showing how the planets would appear to the space travellers who eventually reached them. I loved that book and dreamed of being out there with the explorers, on the baking surface of Mercury or the frozen seas of Triton, or seeing the rings of Saturn up close. (Saturn, as well as being very beautiful in herself, has a string of moons with exceptionally lovely names, which I learned from the Bonestell book and can still recite: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, …) Uncle Fred, though born much too early, is a natural astronaut. When Apollo 8 went to the Moon that amazing Christmas, I remember him sighing, with great intensity of feeling: "Oh, I'd give anything to be up there with them!"

Light-heart and glad they seemed to me
And merry comrades (even so
God out of Heaven may laugh to see
The happy crowds; and never know
That in his lone obscure distress
Each walketh in a wilderness.)

One day the uncle Freds of the world will be able to fulfill their dreams. There will be a way to get into orbit — to the planets, even, and one day to the stars themselves — that doesn't cost 20 million dollars. There will be places to go out there that don't require a physics Ph.D. and six months of training to move around in. Dennis Tito, in a small way, has blazed a trail for this coming democratization of space, and we should thank him for that.

This opening-up of space isn't going to happen soon. We are looking here at the far future. Space tourism will be an expensive and not very rewarding proposition for a long time yet — many decades, probably. Interplanetary travel is barely on the drawing board; interstellar travel so far from our abilities we may have to evolve into a different species to accomplish it. And for all Dennis Tito's enthusiasm, one has the feeling that at least some of the time up there in the space station, he had trouble keeping himself occupied. What did he actually do for six days? Well, he "photographed Earth from different windows." Uh-huh. What else? He "listened to opera on a portable CD player." That last would be one of my choices, too … but for six days? Well, that's what extreme destinations are like, and will be for a long time yet. After all, Antarctica has been available for tourism for nearly a century. It is considerably less hostile to living things than outer space is, and cheaper to get to by a factor of about a thousand; yet few go there (though some do). We shall be playing golf in Antarctica long before there are tourist hotels on Mars.

One day, though, it will happen. There will be some reason for great numbers of people to go, and it will be affordable, and not too dangerous, for them to do so. One day — a thousand or ten thousand years from now — human beings will populate the galaxy, the Milky Way itself. I doubt it will be a government operation. Much more likely it will be messy, noisy, violent, cheesy, and commercial. We'll take all our humanity with us, all our faith and superstition, all our loyalties and rancors, all our wisdom and all our follies, operas and game shows, novels and comic books, poems and porn, all our jostling gregariousness and weeping inner loneliness.

I can barely imagine how or why this will happen, but I am certain it will, and that the voices of our descendants will be heard among the stars. Why, otherwise, were we given knowledge of them? How I wish I could live to see it! Or just that I had 20 million dollars so I could do what Dennis Tito did.

But I, remembering, pitied well
And loved them, who, with lonely light,
In empty infinite spaces dwell,
Disconsolate. For, all the night,
I heard the thin gnat-voices cry,
Star to faint star, across the sky.

               Rupert Brooke, "The Jolly Company,"
                    November 1908