Friday, July 22, 2011

Columnist Opeyemi Parham on Return of Shuttle Atlantis

Space Shuttle AtlantisImage via Wikipedia

Atlantis: End of an Era

      Being a sci-fi child was unusual, in my family African-American  artistic family. My scientific temperament made me feel the black sheep much of the time.
     My geeky tendencies were nurtured outside of my family from an early age.  Max, my third grade science teacher introduced me to atomic theory. I saw a standard drawing of a nucleus, a proton and an electron  and had an epiphany. It represented EVERYTHING. Finding the language of math and science to explore this way of seeing the world was a given for me, from that day onward.
     Then there was  "A Wrinkle in Time", read aloud by my fourth grade teacher. This mythopoetic story of Meg (clumsy misfit struggling to find her place in the world, suddenly transported  into a great struggle to save Earth from Dark Forces) prepared me to believe in miracles, and in the power of love.
     It is with very mixed feelings that I have witnessed the end of America's space program. The return of the  shuttle Atlantis on July 21-- the same day "we" walked on the moon--IS the end of an era. It was an era that started on the wrong foot. A race AGAINST the Russians. The planting of a flag, CLAIMING the moon for "us".    
     A poem I wrote in 9th grade still reads true, all these many years later:

                               "I once heard a Navajo woman,
                                who was withered, 
                                Like the last leaf of Autumn
                               Upon hearing that man had reached the moon,
                               Very quietly,
                                Very softly,
                              'I don't think that man was meant to go to the moon'
                               And I knew that when she died
                               A small piece of humanity would die with her.
                               Because she still saw the moon
                               As luminous power  in a night sky,
                                As a Goddess, to be respected--
                               Not a rock on which to plant a flag
                               Or a dumpsite for discarded LEMs."

      Could the millions spent on the space program have been  better utilized? What were we humans exporting, anyway? How could we simply leave all our junk up there out in space? Was space becoming the new "away" for throwing things away?
     About two weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my geeky MIT grad buddy, the product of parents who are both engineers who work for NASA. His defense of a continued need for the space program boiled down to "having somewhere to do the dangerous experiments".
     Like exploding nuclear bombs? Or biologic warfare tests?
     It was not until 1992 that anyone looking like me went into space. Mae Jemison was a dancer, and a doctor, as well as an astronaut. She resigned from NASA in 1993. In 1996, she filed a police brutality report against a Texas police officer, following her arrest for a traffic violation.
      That incident alone enforces my belief that we have a lot more work to do  "down here" before our government gets back to space exploration.
     We'll get there; in the right time in the right way.
    With the REAL Right Stuff next time.

                       Opeyemi  413-336-1291
                        P.O. Box 264
                        Hadley, MA. 01035  (
         check out my essay in Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World  and my CHAPTER in Dancing on the Earth 

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