Do You Ever Wonder?
- Friday, September 27, 2002
Once there were men in the moon. Do you remember? It was the American space program, and this story happened during the last days of our Apollo flights. Jacob Needleman was one of the reporters gathered to cover the launch of Apollo 17 in 1975.
The launch was scheduled for evening, and the reporters were making a social occasion out of it. They strolled the lawn of the press section where refreshments were laid out on picnic tables. They snacked, drank, and cracked their usual jokes drenched in sarcasm. That's the way of reporters, who see and report the worst of the world's events on a daily basis.
Finally it was time for the great Atlas rocket, a 35-story tower of power, to hurtle into the heavens. There was the familiar countdown, then the launch. As Needleman tells the story in Bill Moyer's book A World of Ideas II, the reporters were suddenly all but blinded by a fast field of orange light. Their eyes could just barely handle the intensity. Then, in deafening silence - given that sound travels less rapidly than light - the great rocket thundered into the dark canopy of night. The sound waves arrived in full force with a cataclysmic whoooooosh and a mighty hummmmm that jangled the reporter's bones. They felt their toes tremble with the earth.
The rocket traveled higher, then higher still as the first stage ignited in spectacular blue flame. It seemed to have become a star, bearing three men bound for glory. And then all of it was gone, vanished into the periphery of the atmosphere and the depths of space. There was silence among the press corps. The interrupted wisecracks died on the reporters' lips, not to be recalled. Needleman saw the men's eyes filled with light, the mouths wide open, the faces list by the inner glow of sheer wonder.
Most amazing of all was the sight of hardened cynical newspapermen whose whole bearing seemed changed. The edge had been knocked off; smiles were now authentic and gentle. Conversation was quiet and reverent. Men were helping each other with their chairs and notebooks. If only for a moment in time, a sense of awe had taken possession of them and changed their behavior patterns.
Such moments are all too few in the dark night of these times. In a true age of wonders filled by spaceships, the Internet, microchips - all miracles our grandparents could never have foretold - we have become a generation characterized not by awe buy by cynicism and empty nihilism. That in itself is a wonder for how can we, who have seen so many new many new marvels, find ourselves so spiritually empty and incapable of wonder?
Marveling at Madness
Our preceding century began with predictions of a future utopia just around the corner. The victories of science and industry would surely deliver new prosperity, new capabilities, and new answers to old problems. Even the First World War was labeled "The War to End All Wars" and popularly seen as a more civilized world's final conflict. The new century came in with the marvel of the light bulb, but it left with the explosion of mass destruction.
Somewhere along the way, we discovered that utopia is elusive. Wars became more ghastly; technology was turned not just to cures but to new, man-created crisis. The transitional moment between the "Century of Progress" and whatever lies before us came on September 11, 2001. Two of the world's most magnificent towers, symbols of sophistication and free world commerce, were savaged by the forces of primitive hatred. As we watched the images of people leaping to their deaths, and we heard of the thousands who perished in collapsing steel and mortar, we felt anything but wonder. We were chilled by horror and dread beyond anything we might have considered before. We wondered if we could ever live again without looking over our shoulders.
Many of us live in cities where sunsets and mountain horizons have become distant memories. The majestic stars are blocked out by the smoky mists of industry. Just as our capabilities have grown exponentially, our capacity for wonder seems to have withered. Even a century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "The world is not lacking in wonders, but in a sense of wonder."
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