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Like most kids fortunate enough to grow up outside of the light-polluted and smog-ridden metropolis, I was fascinated by the starry night sky above me. Books about astronauts and rocket ships competed with Muppets and dinosaurs for space on my fledgling bookshelf. Back then a trip to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City was a special treat, and a morning of cartoons would not be complete without the extraterrestrial antics of the Jetsons. I knew the position of each planet relative to the sun in addition to the names of all the early astronauts. The capstone of my childhood space career occurred one day in kindergarten, when Mrs. Isidore brought in a transistor radio so we could listen as the first space shuttle ascended into orbit.
A few years later, a girl came running into Mr. Covino's fifth grade class, heralding through mask of shock and sweat that the Challenger had exploded just moments after liftoff. A mood of solemnity hung over Grafflin Elementary School that afternoon and it lingered for several days. Parents and teachers related how they had learned of the Kennedy assassination in a similar fashion. Sometime later that year, a current events-minded teacher took a poll, and my classmates voted the Challenger incident to be the most important news story of 1986.
It was also that year that we all caught comet fever; Halley's had come to town. For several weeks we endured arctic temperatures, looking skyward until our necks were sore. Everyone ooed and ahhed, and I think I was the only kid in town who admitted to not being able to see the damn thing. Finally, one frigid night I looked through the telescope at the high school and saw a pea-sized white blob. I'm told it was the comet, but it looked more like frost on the lens to me. I knew from school that we wouldn't see the blob again for 75 years, but that was fine by me because my face and fingers stung from the cold, and I wanted to go home.
Last night, I repeated this ritual, this time scanning the heavens for Hale-Bopp. Dining halls had been abuzz with tales of sightings for days, and Harvard's armchair astronomers regaled whoever would listen with hyperbole and an occasional fact. Not wanting to miss out on the chance of four millennia, I turned my eyes skyward yet again. The same pea-sized white blob hung in the sky, and it was only after I cleaned my eyeglasses that I was convinced it was indeed a comet and not a piece of lint from the laundry room--piece of lint whose death toll was presently 39. I shared my disappointment with a companion, but her reverence was incorrigible. Others, too, seemed mesmerized and hypnotized by a cosmic aura of awe and amazement. I began to feel a little inadequate. Perhaps I was missing something. Perhaps I was forsaken a once-in-an-eon opportunity that I would later lament. Or, perhaps the emperor was as naked as the day he was born.
It is only with a minimum of nostalgic regret that I mourn the enchanted outer space of my childhood. Comets will always be a white blobs to me, and I no longer idolize astronauts. I have since learned that the exalted Hayden Planetarium's Pink-Floyd-and-astronomy extravaganzas provided psychedelic entertainment for drug users citywide. I find most of our nation's space program to be a waste of time and money. The notion of launching tomato seeds into space is morally repugnant when there are those who die of starvation on a daily basis. Housing men and women in space stations seems futile when homeless people slumber just outside my door. Perhaps it is merely an end of innocence, but the intergalactic dreams of my youth have become the cosmic fears and realities of my adulthood. Theologians distinguish between "other-worldly" and "this-worldly" philosophies and it is not with remorse that I cleave to the latter. Call it juvenile cynicism or ignorant incredulity. Space has been disenchanted forever.
I still marvel at the stars, but now they are "merely" reminders of the grandeur of creation. Stars are stars, comets are comets. Neither can save us from sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
Gabriel B. Eber's column appears on alternate Saturdays.
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