Goodbye, Space Shuttle

“By returning and rest we shall be saved.”
— The Book of Common Prayer

Can’t speak for everyone in New England, but for me, there was a large gap in space/time — a period of wu chi like that well described by the master bard who was getting married at Gibraltar while in a parallel event his cosmic counterpart, Neil Armstrong, was playing golf on the moon; “no heaven ... no country ... no religion too” — a time between creations that started its long pause when Ted Williams left Boston in 1960 and finally ended when Tom Brady came to Boston in the year 2000. In between we, the people, left the earth for space.

So much in the “between” — bar-do, that space between “real time” I think Tibetans call it — the time in which we actually went to space and lived there. Then this weekend we came back.

A featured op-ed writer in The New York Times called the last shuttle flight “the end of optimism.” I myself much enjoyed the ride but appreciate the return as well and look forward most of all to the next thing just ahead. I don’t see what optimism has to do with it.

There were things we learned and metabolized while we were in space — George Lucas’s long tutorial on Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism — “the Force” — in the "Star Wars" series, for example — so that when the Dalai Lama holds a Kalachakra in Washington, D.C., as the shuttle makes its final landing, it feels to be as American as apple pie. As American as Whoopi Goldberg or Jimi Hendrix. But Ted Williams might not have understood.

We might not have grasped these things so readily earth-bound; shackled to earth and its burdensome ancient memories. But one professor friend said back then that when he studied the Tao it helped him “understand the Bible more.”

Walking with Skywalker was more than just movies. Critic Stanley Kauffman said “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977 was “an event in the history of faith.”

And it is interesting that the mythic, epical space journeys of Obi-Wan Kenobi and his extraverted twin Captain James T. Kirk and his half-sister Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, who so generously loaned her ovaries to Andromeda — our mother in space — so we the earthbound may be born again in space — these and 1,000 other images and stories all occurred in the real-time age of the space program.

And then the space stories stopped abruptly around 2005 and we came back to earth: Interesting as well to a place called “Redemption Island” in the “Survivor” series. And the mystery we saw in space in the 100 years prior to lift-off we see now on earth with shows like “Survivor” and ”Lost.” Seeing the earth as if — in T.S. Eliot’s phrase — for the first time.

Maybe we were better prepared there in space for the new millennium. Which probably starts now with the last shuttle flight. But we are an earth-based species. It should be the most obvious observation about human nature. This is where we belong, this is where we rest and this is the place to which we return at space journey’s end.

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