And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool
and composed before a million universes.
~ Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
In 2010, I unexpectedly secured a media badge via my university’s magazine to see a space shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center. By that time, the nation knew the Shuttle program would end the following year. It seemed a lark to see a launch while I still could, a chance I couldn’t pass up but not something I expected to change my life.
Out at the launch pad, I stood roughly fifty yards from the orbiter as the surrounding scaffolding opened slowly to reveal its illuminated white body and wings against the dark Florida night. I was near enough to see its scuffs from previous flights and to imagine the astronauts who would walk across the orange access arm to crawl into the cabin the next day.
I felt what I can describe now only as awe. It’s rare that something, especially something we think we know, takes our breath away. My eyes teared up with a strange form of joy, a fluttering in my heart.
I’ve tried, over the last few years, to make sense of that awe, that heart-pounding connection to a machine. That the upright orbiter, attached to its orange fuel tank, is shaped like a giant double phallus is, sadly, not lost on me. Somehow, though, being that near a space shuttle ready to launch made me feel more human than I’d ever felt, my best self. Perhaps this is because it is one of the most complicated machines humans have ever constructed. It represents the effort of people in Louisiana and Utah, in Texas and California, in Florida and Washington, DC. So many people had their hands on so many parts. The shuttle has more than 2.5 million parts, all made by human beings and assembled into something more than the sum of those parts.
Perhaps my unabashed feelings emerged because so few humans have left Earth and flown in space, disconnected from the rest of us for a while. I will never go to space myself: NASA requires astronauts to have a science or engineering degree, and I am older than the next cohort is likely to be. So, in those moments near the shuttle, I came as close as I ever will to the most rarified experience I can imagine.
When the space shuttle Challenger broke apart in 1986, 73 seconds after launch, I was in college. I gathered with others around a television in a campus lounge to watch the tragic Y-shape of contrail over and over. With aircraft and spacecraft, the people are referred to as souls on board. The word soul may have evolved from a proto-Germanic word meaning coming from the sea, for the sea was thought to be the place where the soul resided before a person was born and after she died. Lao Tzu supposedly said, “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” That day, looking at the shuttle in person, I understood what a soul might be.
I did not see Discovery launch, for the launch was delayed until the following February. I found it too difficult to get out of my job obligations, but missing that launch reminded me how much seeing the shuttle in person had meant, how it had changed the way I felt about myself and the world around me. Aristotle is credited with saying, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” It seems silly to think of awe as love, yet I saw Endeavour’s last launch that May and now visit that orbiter in a museum, an artifact. The word artifact comes from Latin words meaning a thing made from skill, the art left by the hand, a symbol of the human soul.
Anna Leahy's book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and her third chapbook, Sharp Miracles, is forthcoming this spring from Blue Lyra Press. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, The Pinch, The Weeklings, Tinderbox Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, and more. She has books about cancer forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Peter Lang and a book about creative writing pedagogy and the profession forthcoming from Multilingual Matters. She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog at http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com.