The bonds that restrain us

Oh! I have the slipped the surly bonds of Earth — Put out my hand and touched the Face of God

"High Flight," John G. Magee Jr.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling

Space flights didn't use to have apexes. An apex is the top or highest part of something; in reference to flight, it describes the point where the craft is farthest away from the hard, unforgiving ground below. Airliners have an apex of about 40,000 feet over the earth, zipping along until they come to their point of destination, where they touch gently back down on the runway.

Space was different. When you reached the edge of outer space, it made no more sense to refer to your flight in relation to earth than it does to imagine our galaxy as a geocentric one. What is up when there is no gravity? What is down when you can look up and see the earth?

Even in reference to shuttles, which merely orbit the earth, the word "apex" seems inadequate. Using 5.6 million pounds of thrust, the gleaming white planes blasted into and out of the atmosphere riding the back of a rollicking red rocket en route to low orbit, high orbit or even the moon. For eons, man stared out into space (sometimes thinking it was God, other times thinking it filled with vermicious Knids) and wondered. The shuttle stood as the preeminent example of man matching up against nature. Not defeating it, mind you (see Titanic, The, for reasons why one should not think oneself above Mother Nature). But able to meet it on its own terms, to work together to harness the capability of man and prove ourselves not limited by constraints of time, energy or — finally — gravity.

As Discovery whisked away into the sky over Florida this afternoon on its final voyage, it signaled an end. Not an end to space flight, or technological advances, or (metaphorically or literally) even reaching for the stars. It signaled an end to an age of exploration, of adventure. It's an end of an era in which we thought there was still more to find out.

Think about it. I'm not claiming that there aren't still many (innumerable) scientific advances to be made, gadgets to be invented and boundaries to be pushed. But it does seem like the grand experiment, the drive to achieve a symbolic victory for humanity, rather than for country or group, does seem to have reached the end of its line.

Where once Houston and Cape Canaveral stood as the gateways to space, now there are "commercial spaceports" (or at least, very badly thought-out plans for them). We're not sending up publicly-funded vehicles in order to further scientific exploration, we're equipping wide-body 747s with harnesses and padding so the obscenely wealthy can feel the effects of barfing on a multiple-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars plane ride, in 30-second intervals.

It's not a symptom, but a side-effect, perhaps, of a society that seems to have turned from once noble — or merely not-shallow — goals. Where once people strove to became famous by displaying a talent or being the best at something, now they strive be famous for ... being famous. The superficiality that has infected our culture is seeping into what formerly were the bastions of rationality and solid principles; look no further than Climate-gate, or the fact that controversy constantly swirls around scientific theories manufactured because of "difference of opinions," or those who insist that the function of government is to lavish money upon the already wealthy at the expense of those who need help the most.

This is, undoubtedly, a rosy-colored view of the causes of history, but it's a clear-eyed look at the effects. Man untethered himself from the earth at Kitty Hawk, Man turned a weapon of unimaginable destruction at Nagasaki into a source of energy. And man wrenched himself free from terra firma and set himself down on another celestial body, for no other reason than he could.

I do not intend for this to be a eulogy for our collective exploratory nature, though it very well may serve as such. We seem to be set on a track that takes us further and further away from collective achievement and points squarely in the direction of personal accomplishment. This is not a plea to save the space program or pour more money into NASA. I don't know the feasibility of building new shuttles; I don't know the future. Nor, at this moment, do I particularly care to contemplate it.

Instead, I sat outside after work last night and looked up at the stars, just imagining what it was like. I sat watching the liftoff on the biggest TV I could find, trying to comprehend what it means to have multiple times the force of gravity strain to keep your body on the earth, but through the collective intelligence of generations rip yourself away.

Those who went before us soared so majestically they rendered the word we use to mean the highest altitude, apex, meaningless. How far up are we now meant to go? I can only hope that we, as a generation, as a society, as a species, follow their example: Don't worry about how high we can make it. Think instead in terms of how to redefine what it means to fly altogether.