Of Star Children & Space Phobia

I got to catch the last complete lunar eclipse in North America a few years ago. Now, I'm not normally a "total" anything kinda guy. I'll maybe get to see your relatively mundane partial eclipse of the Sun or Moon. If I'm at a baseball game, it may go into extra innings or be a one or two-hitter. You know, kinda unusual. But something as momentous as a total eclipse, (or, say, a no-hitter), forget it. Ninety-nine times out of 100, if something that exciting happens, I'll be tied up waxing the cat or something equally as useful and miss the damn thing.

Not on that night, though. That night, I remembered. The early autumn sky, cloudy and crying all day, cleared. So, I parked myself, amazingly all alone, on the 1st Street bridge. There, smack over the center of the Colorado River, I had a postcard-perfect view of Austin, Texas' beautiful night skyline and the eclipsed Moon. That's where I was at 9:18 pm CDT at the moment of total eclipsedness.

Earlier, as I walked to this prime vantage point, it occurred to me that Dr. Carl Sagan had nailed it right on the head when he called us "Star Children." He explained, in his wonderful series Cosmos, that all the matter by which we're comprised of was, at one time, inside a precursor star to our Sun. Hence, the name Star Children.

Now, something draws people to the oceans. Something, that is, other than observing a multitude of scantily-clad members of the opposite sex cavorting and frolicking on the beach. Something deeper. More primeval. We'll stand on a beach or, even better, a high bluff overlooking the endless blue, and just…stare out. Time becomes as meaningless as the rest of our surroundings as we contemplate the mysterious sea. When at last we have to leave, we do so only reluctantly, drawing in one last deep breath of the pungent briny air that first filled our ancestors' lungs and, finally, we go on our way. We evolved from ocean dwellers and now, eons later, part of us longs to go back.

Perhaps at a more elementary level, humankind feels an even more subtle but unmistakable longing for the stars. It's one step further removed, to be sure. Our atomic and sub-atomic components resided in the stars way before they figured out how to self-replicate, climb out of the water, and program a DVR. (That last one, by the way, proof that Evolution is still a Work In Progress.) But the desire is still there, even if few of us pay much attention to it and most of us still equate space exploration with Buck Rodgers.

I read an article in the newspaper once that summarized a recent scientific study in which a group of men was asked how they felt towards homosexuals. A certain percentage of these men were so vehement in their dislike for gays as to lean towards outright hatred for them. Then, the entire group was wired up and shown erotic, (or pornographic, depending on your point of view) video clips depicting explicit sex acts of both a hetero and homosexual nature.

Not surprisingly, the same men who had demonstrated the most vitriolic attitudes towards gays were, generally speaking, the most (secretly) sexually aroused by the homosexual imagery. These "manly" guys, terrified of being gay, are secretly turned on so they lash out and make fun of homosexuals. The whole thing hits a little too close to home for them.

The Universe affects us in a similar manner. We know we're from "out there." Hell, we might even be "extraterrestrials" ourselves, according to the growing number of experts who believe our molecular building blocks hitchhiked to Earth on a prehistoric comet or asteroid. Yet, the sheer Bigness of the Universe overwhelms us. We've all, at one time or another, gazed up at the night sky, taking in the countless stars, millions of light years away, and realized that those were only the stars in our galaxy and that there were billions more galaxies out there, each containing billions of stars in their own right.

It's too much and we shut down.

Or we turn it all into a kind of cosmic sit-com that we've been running for centuries. Millions of people flock to see Star Wars, Star Trek, ET, and dozens of other films and television shows about exploring space or the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life in the Universe. These films and shows have a world full of adoring fans.

In the meantime, our real life astronauts and cosmonauts circle the globe and risked life and limb to walk on the Moon. The press rewards them by regaling us with Tang commercials and the ongoing saga of the Shuttle's clogged toilet.

This complete inability to take space exploration seriously simply indicates that humankind's compelling desire to learn about the Universe around us does exist, if only on a very subtle, subconscious primeval "gut" level. But the Universe is so damned big and overwhelming, it scares us. So we joke about it. Make fun of it. Like the guys in the study made fun of homosexuals.

At the NASA press conference announcing the possible discovery of fossilized ancient bacterial life on Mars, a discovery with potentially staggering implications for our entire social, political, economic and religious institutions, the scientists found themselves only half-jokingly tamping down Little Green Men speculations from the press and public.

But when I walked to my eclipse vantage point that night, I saw a simpler proof of our curiosity. All kinds of people; families, groups of kids, old folks, stood out on their lawns or on their balconies or in the streets and peered up at the sky. They were soul-searching stares, like you'd see at the ocean, only more so. An occasional hushed remark floated over these groups of silent sentinels. I reached my spot and, looking down river, I could see a larger crowd gathering on the next bridge over. They, too, were ordinary folks, not just space geeks like me. Thirty or forty Austinites — Earthlings, damn it! — lined that bridge, all staring up at the sharply defined shadow creeping slowly across the big, beautiful Full Moon.

Maybe they, like me, usually missed out on "total" things. In any case, on that night, we could see a fraction of the Cosmos in action. It was a small enough piece so that our minds could comprehend what we saw and, instead of our usual smirking, we soaked it up like babies contemplating our toes. Tonight we were infants.

We were thirty or forty Star Children, looking out towards home.