Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Fire in the Sky

Prometheus, they say, brought God's fire down to Man,

And we've caught it, tamed it, trained it since our history began.

Now we're going back to Heaven just to look Him in the eye,

And there's a thunder 'crost the land, and a fire in the sky.

Gagarin was the first, back in 1961,

When like Icarus undaunted, he climbed to reach the Sun.

And he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die,

But he lifted off the pad and rode a fire in the sky.

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed to reach it soon,

And we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the Moon.

And Apollo told the world we can do it if we try,

And there was one small step and a fire in the sky.

--Dr. Jordin Kare, "Fire in the Sky"

The ironic thing was that it happened on a feast of fire. In Ireland, February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid of Kildare, famous for her generosity to others and asceticism for herself. She brewed beer, healed the sick, and founded a convent for both men and women which would shed the light of holiness and learning over all Europe. Her namesake, the goddess Brighid, was worshipped with fire? Then St. Brigid (like St. Patrick) would kindle a new fire, a perpetual fire which would never go out, tended each day of the month by a different one of her nuns, and the last day by St. Brigid. After she died, they say the nuns still trusted the fire one day of the month to St. Brigid's care, and she (generous woman) let them sleep and tended the fire. Henry II had it put it out. They lighted it again when his people'd gone. Henry VIII put it out again, and the monks and nuns as well. But they still make crosses out of straw for St. Brigid, in so many different local shapes they're charted in the atlas for Eire.

(And in Old St. Mary's in Alexandria, that very conservative Catholic church, you will find her peering from her stained glass window, a bishop's miter on her head and crook in hand as she listens to homilies on why women will never be ordained. (St. Brigid was never a priest, but back then you didn't necessarily have to be a priest to be a bishop. So one of Kildare's claims to independence was that their abbot's bishopric derived from St. Patrick making her a bishop.)

Fly, Columbia! Fly, Columbia!

Thunder toward tomorrow on an oxygen stream

Thunder toward tomorrow -- fire, flame and rocket song!

Mark a new time of man -- booster candles light the dawn --

Fly, Columbia! Fly, Columbia!

Foundation of the future, courier of dreams --

Thunder on!

--Diana Gallagher, "Fly, Columbia"

I woke up early yesterday and then went back to bed. I didn't wake up till eleven. I breakfasted, read a book, and then started reading my email. Only at one o'clock did I run across an email that -- well, at first I thought it was a Challenger memorial, but the shuttle name was Columbia! Then I thought it was a sick joke, but...the sender wouldn't do that.... Then I saw other emails. Many, many emails from many different senders. It wasn't a joke. I hurriedly went to Google News, where I absently noted the header celebrating Chinese New Year and the Year of the Sheep. (The ironic thing was that it was a feast of fire....) It wasn't a joke. I turned on the TV in time to see the President tell us so.

Columbia, the promise of better days to come --

Columbia, proud mistress of the wind --

Fly in orbit free, chase the moon and race the sun.

Fly, Columbia. For humankind fly.

--Diana Gallagher, "Fly, Columbia"

The ironic thing is that it was a feast of fire. It was the eve of Candlemas; the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, once called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. When I went to Mass yesterday evening, the gospel reading told the story of Mary and Joseph bringing their baby to the Temple, as written in the law. There they met the old prophet Simeon, who had been promised by God that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. When he caught sight of the Baby Jesus, he told God that he could now die, for he had seen the baby boy who would become a light to the Gentiles as well as the glory of Israel. So for centuries, Christians blessed candles and carried them in procession on the fortieth day after Christmas -- February 14th in the East, and February 2nd in the West. In many places, it was reckoned as the true end of the Christmas season, and thus the day for pulling down and burning Christmas decorations.

So I walked to Mass on Saturday, and I sang as I walked, but not hymns. I sang what came to mind: unhappy snatches of "Fire in the Sky", "Fly, Columbia", and Leslie Fish's "Hope Eyrie". I would've sung "Guardians", but that would've been too painful if I could've remembered it.

The gospel told us of how Joseph and Mary, and Jesus, acted as faithful Jews. In the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, I could only think of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. He was himself a secular Jew, but he decided to live on Columbia as if he were an observant one. With the help of NASA and the advice of many rabbis, he ate kosher food and kept the sabbath in space. He carried a tiny Torah scroll. He honored his father, a Holocaust survivor, by carrying a lunar landscape drawn in the camps by 14-year-old Holocaust victim Petr Ginz.

Now two decades past Gagarin, 20 years to the day,

Came a shuttle named Columbia to open up the way.

And they said "She's just a truck", but she's a truck that's aiming high!

See her big jets burn. See her fire in the sky.

Yet the gods do not give lightly of the gifts that they have made

And with Challenger and seven, once again the price was paid.

Though a nation watched her falling, all the world could do was cry

As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky.

-- Dr. Jordin Kare, "Fire in the Sky"

Yesterday, Buzz Aldrin went on television after the disaster. He brought with him a copy of "Fire in the Sky" that someone had sent him in email. "Fire in the Sky" was written by Jordin Kare.

I know Jordin. He's a tall, gentle man who gives an impression of gawkiness. He plays guitar well and sings in a voice so pleasant you don't really mind the odd moment that's nasal or off-key. He's a songwriter and a good one. He's also a brilliant man, a rocket scientist for NASA who spends his days trying to implement dreams of solar sails and powerbeams. His wife, Mary Kay Kare, in a typical act of determination won Jordin a charity auction for a cameo appearance in David Weber's latest Honor Harrington novel. Jordin's quirkiness and qualifications made him a minor character instead.

The door...opened exactly on schedule. That was not, Reynaud knew, the fault of Dr. Jordin Kare, who seldom got anywhere on schedule...Kare was a man of medium height, with thinning brownish hair and eyes which couldn't seem to make up their mind whether they were gray or blue...It was part of his ambiguous feelings about the entire project that he liked Jordin Kare as much as he did. Of course, the professor was a very likable human being, in his own, absentminded sort of way. He was also one of the more brilliant astrophysicists the Star Kingdom had produced, with at least five academic degrees Reynaud knew about. He suspected there were probably at least two or three others Kare had forgotten to mention to anyone. It was the sort of thing he would have done.

So I sang Jordin's song yesterday and worried about Jordin. You see, he wrote "Fire in the Sky" as a history of space travel. He never thought he'd have to write the Challenger verse. He never thought he'd have to write another one for Columbia. And he is a gentle man.

So gentle that yesterday Buzz Aldrin read his lyrics on the air, and cried as he read.

Worlds grow old, and suns grow cold,

And death we never can doubt.

Time's cold wind wailing down the past

Reminds us that all flesh is grass

And history's lamps blow out.

But the Eagle has landed.

Tell your children when.

Time won't drive us down to dust again.

-- Leslie Fish, "Hope Eyrie"

The times are dark. War is coming. But there are stars in that night sky, and the Sun. Seven of our best and brightest died, but first they lived. They lived together in peace in their little ship: Christians, a Jew, even a Hindu whose name meant "Imagination". They flew over the world, and their lives spoke of freedom and hope. The Creator of the stars knew those bright souls well. It is we here on Earth who still have work to do. It is we who must justify the waste of our talents and treasure that has left humanity languishing in low Earth orbit when the whole solar system is there for us to explore. Our species lives on only one planet. One terrorist with a cleverly used nuclear weapon could still set off WWIII. Do we really want all our eggs in one basket? Do we really want our children to stay at home in this terrestrial playpen, when the universe is waiting?

We've only been flying for a hundred years. People died like flies in the beginning. They still die; flying is dangerous. And yet, when the skies were empty after 9/11, it was a grief almost as powerful as what I felt for the 3000 people we lost. We flew again. We fly still. We will keep flying. And we must keep flying into space.

Let us keep our dreams alive. Let us use the gifts God has given us to reach the marvelous places God has made, and make new homes for humanity out there on the frontier. Let us keep the fires burning.

And please, Lord, do not let me die before I see that brighter future!

Now the rest is up to us. There's a future to be won.

We must turn our faces outward. We will do what must be done.

For no cradle lasts forever; every bird must learn to fly.

And we are going to the stars. See our fire in the sky.

--Dr. Jordin Kare, "Fire in the Sky"

(You can download an MP3 of "Fire in the Sky" from Prometheus Music.)


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