Friday, December 20, 2013

A Future Shock Moment

The International Space Station
When Sputnik went up in 1957, the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. hit a crisis point.  We were still diving under our desks in schools learning how to survive an atomic bomb attack.   A few years later, in 1961, I happened to be in East Berlin just after Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight.  They were handing out free post cards of Comrade Gagarin around the city in brotherly cooperation with “the Friends,” as the East Germans called the Russians.  I sent one to an uncle I knew would be pissed off by the gesture.

I underestimated his rage.  He hounded my father, his brother, for days about how badly he had raised his son.  Bad enough my father had married a German.  Now, it turns out, he had fathered a traitor.

I was only twenty-one at the time, so I had no brakes on my ability to be offensive.  Things actually got worse in later years when I went to live in Japan, thereby, according to my uncle, thumbing my nose at all the men who had given their lives for freedom in the World Wars and Korea.

Sunita Williams in the ISS
I’ve just watched a video of a tour of the International Space Station, that wonder of wonders built cooperatively by Russians, Americans, Canadians, Japanese and the EU to the tune of $160 billion – yes, billion with a b – that flies around in space filled with labs for all kinds of scientific experiments.  It’s bigger, they say, than a five-bedroom house – 15,000 cubic feet, actually – and it’s been in operation for fifteen years.

The tour blew my mind for a number of reasons.  First, because I didn’t know about it.  It’s not just that I haven’t been paying attention.  It’s that it’s so taken for granted that nobody I know oohs and ahhs about it anymore.  Which is astonishing, when you think of it, because the accomplishment is astonishing.   It brought on a serious case of future shock.  I mean not just the technical wizardry.  I mean the politics of it all and what it says about the temporariness of our human disputes between nations.

The tour is conducted by Suni (Sunita) Williams, who has herself spent 322 days in space altogether.  The second mind-blower is the fact that this video was made a year ago, the day before she and others returned to earth (in Kazakhstan), and I’m only now catching sight of it.

Suni Williams looks and talks like the American she is.  But she’s also a Hindu, and brought a statue of Ganesha to accompany her on her flight.  And if that were not enough to give my uncle a hickey, she speaks Russian with her Russian fellow astronauts and points out the photo of Gagarin on the wall as she speaks of “our history.”

Our history.  Ours.  The Russians and the Americans work together these days and have a common space station which we call “ours.”  And those Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor?  Who caused all that death and destruction in China, the Philippines, and elsewhere?  Those guys?  Here we are in the Japanese lab, Sunny says.  Oh, hi, Aki, as she floats past her Japanese colleague.

On the ground level, we have all sorts of nasty business going on as usual.  Putin, the modern day imperialist czar of Old Russia, toys with the fate of his political enemy, Khodorkovsky, and decides to let him out of jail after ten years, but shows his contempt by making the announcement as an afterthought to a press conference.  He launches an anti-gay campaign that has the world trying to decide whether to attend the Olympic Games at Sochi and which officials to send over, if any.  Same old, same old.

But here on the ISS, a Hindu American says “Izvenitye (excuse me)” as she passes her Russian colleague while filming a tour to show the folks back home, and the only thing remarkable is the fact that it isn’t remarkable.

Sarychev Volcano eruption seen from the ISS
No doubt there are rivalries between the national groups.  I can’t imagine there would not be.  But somehow they seem to be able to work together, share exercise machines, food from Japan, food from Russia, food from America – and toilets – together.  Altogether a mighty uplifting picture.  Wish my uncle were still alive to see it.

Take a half hour sometime, if you have not already done so, to view the video.  

And when you’re done, consider yet another mind-blower, perhaps the greatest one of all.  An ad put out by Haynes Baked Beans, in which astronauts are portrayed not as heroes, but as perfectly ordinary shlemiels like the rest of us.  

Photo credits:

Sarychev volcano (Kuril Islands)

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