Thursday, October 11, 2007

Things that Go Beep in the Night (and other Mysteries)

We're in the middle of the 50th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. It's got me thinking a lot about what we're used to: seeing man-made things moving in the sky, and things we're not used to: being contained in a very small space while being launched into orbit.

I've heard accounts from people who stared out at the sky watching Sputnik 1 blink across the night, and how terrifying and awe-inspiring it was: "That thing up there is from here..."

And I've gotten so used to seeing things in the sky that are from down here. My apartment in Brooklyn was along the flightpath to JFK, and though we were far enough to never really hear the planes, if you sat on the side of the sofa next to the lamp, you were in direct line with the flightpath and could see green and white dots cross the kitchen window aout every fifteen minutes. They were more frequent than the bus that stopped in front of our building.

But I remember when I flew out to visit Bennington for Accepted Students weekend as a senior in high school, and I was reading "Jane Eyre" for the first time (and identifying with it maybe too deeply), and for some reason, flying back home, I was struck by the fact that I was seeing the earth from a vantage point that such an infinitesimal percent of human beings in the history of the human race had ever seen it. Planes had been around for less than a century, and commercial flights are even younger. Compare that with the number of human beings that have walked the earth. Who are we that we get to see earth from 30,000 feet? My exact thought was "Charlotte Bronte never flew in a plane..." (An early taste of my constant revelations of the obvious, with which many of you may be familiar).

And thinking about Sputnik, got me of course, thinking about Laika, the first creature from Earth ever launched into space. She was a dog, and it took decades for scientists to reveal that she did not in fact die a week or so into orbit, but rather, within hours of the launch. This was probably due to malfuncitons of the heating control system, but either way, this dog must have been very confused. It went from wandering the streets of Moscow as a stray, to being strapped into a harness, locked into a little metal cone, then thrust at great force into who-knows-where, with only the sound of her breathing to keep her company. I probably would've died a few hours after launch also, if I didn't know that all of this was so I could float above the Earth (that, I would stay alive for).

But this issue of small-space-containment, brought me to thinking of another odd creature that I came across in college. It was before this person and I became friends, that I walked into the Commons buidling, and there, at the bottom of the stairs to the dining hall, was a large (but not tall) constructed crate of-sorts, with drawers, video cameras, electrical cords, and a person inside. This person was Garth Silberstein. My memores of this event are quite foggy, and I wouldn't mind some clarification, such as "why did this happen?" but as a freshman at Bennington, I'd already earned not to ask "why?" too loudly, and rather, just to trust that this meant something (to someone). But I recall that we could watch a video feed of this man squished into a very small space, and we had the option of giving him food through slots, or writing notes to him, but he was wearing a blindfold of some kind and earphones with white noise playing, so that he'd have no sense of what was going on around him. Little did I know that the man in the box, would be one of my most beloved people on the planet within a year or so. But at that time, I just thought "why would anyone subject himself to being on display, in a box with no space to move, and no way to interact with all the people staring at you?

But why do we do anything? Why did we send a dog into space? Why do I ignore the things flying over my head? All these things, including Garth-in-a-box, serve to remind me that once in a while, it's important to remember that you are a body that breathes, and that needs space (inner and outer). And Russian Christmas ornaments in the sky, dogs dying above the earth, and men exploring their endrance and discomfort limits out of sheer curiosity and art, all go to remind me that life is worth living with mouth agape.


Garth said...

I'm so honored that my little box made an impression on you. One of our goals to convey a sense to the viewer that one was watching video of someone in a space ship, being broadcast back to earth, so I'm happy that came across.

Interestingly, although Laika the space dog has been a preoccupation of mine, ever since I saw the movie My Life as a Dog, as a child, I don't think Stephen and I talked about Laika when we built the box. Still, I think she was an inspiration, at least on a subconscious level.

Laika remains one of my favorite under-celebrated cultural icons, along with Gagarin.

Kj said...

how long were you in there?

JustAnotherDramaQueen said...

yeah. how long were u in there?

Garth said...

36 hours. It was supposed to be longer, but the launch was delayed by conflicts with college security.