ichael . benson on Thu, 15 Jul 1999 11:21:08 +0000

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Syndicate: No, *i* wanna be #13

Interesting about this number thirteen business. Apollo 13, famously, 
managed to have an on-board explosion and barely made it back to 
Earth. Any foolhardy volunteer thirteenth moonwalker would have to 
contend with that, and hope the launch date wasn't, you know, 
06/06/06, something like that.

Still, *I* wanna go as well. Where do I sign?

Wading through a big fat book on the Apollo program not so long 
ago -- by Andrew Chaiken; it's as long as War and Peace -- I learned 
some interesting things. For instance did you know that the 
astronauts, as they tried to sleep, in hammocks slung within the 
cramped lunar module, listened to the thin metal shell surrounding 
them tick and creak, as internal air-pressure worked against tin and 
external sunlight? 

Outside, dry hills, empty empty valleys. Directly above, that blue 
pearl in black heaven.

A valued early memory is of that almost impenetrably grainy, boxed,
black and white image of Neil Armstrong backing down the ladder. We're
in the basement of my family's house in Bethesda, Maryland. The TV, a
small G.E. job with a bulbous, fish-bowl aspect to it, flickers in the
early hours of the morning. My parents have woken us up, intent on
seeing to it that the kids experience this singular moment of history.
Ghostly, spectral, this manifestly uncharismatic man slowly makes his
way down towards the overexposed sand, probably muttering his lines to
himself like a nervous actor. His face is hidden behind that giant
black monocle -- no doubt a great source of relief to him. But, in
contrast to his shy persona, his name seems specifically reconstituted
from Viking legend to serve as a perfect tag for one of the great 
explorers: Arm-Strong. 

Forget the famous words: what's Neil actually *doing?* He's taking a
step backwards into time and history. Why backwards? I'm sure there
are many good technical reasons -- all of which translate into his
doing his best not to break his neck -- but in retrospect it's 
because that step wasn't just onto the lunar surface; it was also 
into *history's dual stream.* Not just into the future, but also into 
the past. A step not just towards the stars, but back, in the 
direction of those same stars flickering at the other end of time, 
illuminating an emerging human sentience. Backwards, that is, towards 
fire, the wheel, the pyramids; towards open longboats skirting 
Greenland glaciers. 

In other words, any step forward in time towards the stars has to
contend with the fact that all that starlight was flung across space
centuries, or millennia, before we were even born. We never step twice
into the same river, Ok; but Heraclitus didn't necessarily notice 
that this river flows in diametrically opposite directions depending 
on which bank the observer chooses. Filmmakers are familiar with the
principle. *Screen left. Screen right.* Armstrong stepped backwards 
into time's stream, and the ripples from his boot extended in both
directions. His foot landed, without his knowing it, on a line with no
beginning or end, connecting him both to our innumerable star-gazing
ancestors and to unknowable future generations of space-faring
mankind. *All the rivers flow into the sea.* Neil Armstrong, and that
immense ziggurat of technicians, engineers and cold-war cash that put
him there, achieved one of the greatest accomplishments "of all time".
But what does this mean, exactly? The ineffable substance extends
backwards and forwards, in an immense, bi-directional flow. *And the
sea does not fill.*

Something about the size, shape and missions of those giant obelisks 
-- the thundering Saturn-5's, vaulting towards the moon -- linked 
them, unmistakably, to the aspirations of the ancients. Even at that 
age, I got it. To this day I think we should have left one Apollo 
rocket as it was, poised on the launch-pad, frozen in time and 
anchored in place, there to serve as a piece of architecture, built 
to last for centuries.

And yeah, I would drop everything, put a fishbowl on my head, 
breathe the pure oxygen. Thirteen or not. 

Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>
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