Over and over the word fragile.
"It looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart." This from James Irwin, crew member of Apollo 15.
Astronaut Loren Acton spoke of seeing it "contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere."
To Aleksei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, the earth looked "touchingly alone."
And when Vitali Sevastyanov was asked by ground control what he saw, he replied, "Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small."
Neil Armstrong said, "I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."
And Ulf Merbold: "For the first time in my life I saw the horizon line as curved, accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light. I was terrified by its fragile appearance."
(Is this what frightened you, is this what you sought to combat and to flee? This fragility, this somehow-knowledge even then before anyone had ever left the earth or seen it from a distance, of how small it is and delicate, as we are too, how finite, how beside-the-point, how fleeting.)
(Might this account partly for my monstrous proportions, as if you were building a shield, a fortress of flesh, as if the vertiginous wings of blood in us could somehow be made to tremble less. But I am a blunt and narrow piece of materiality. Imprinting and imprinted. As were you. Footprints, strands of broken hair dropped here and there.)
On March 18, 1965, Alexei Leonov exited the main capsule of Voskhod2 by pushing himself head-first out of the opening. A 16-foot lifeline held him to the ship. If it broke he would drift off forever. Although the space-craft traveled at great speed, there was no air rushing past to let him feel it. He spun slowly for ten minutes. But when the co-pilot Belyayev told him to come back he didn't want to return.
(He didn't want to return... And yet it seems a lonely thing--that feeling of nothing pushing back.)
Several months later, Edward White walked in space for 20 minutes, though the term's deceptive as the motion is of free-fall or floating. Seen from 120 miles away, earth was nearly featureless. When he returned to the space ship he had lost 5 kg of body mass and 2 kg of perspiration had collected in his boots.
But he, too, didn't want to return to the capsule.
When told to come back to the spacecraft he said, "This is the saddest moment of my life."
His co-pilot pulled him back in.
(And you will work in sorrow the fields... As if your laboratory were that field, a wound always to be worked, a not-quiteness, a rivenness of mind needing to be healed. But when he floated there, in that region without weight or mass or shadow, all fields fell away, all shattering gone soft and pliant, as if there were no need anymore either to build or to destroy--)
(But how my mind builds and destroys you over and over--)
On January 27, 1967, two years after his space walk, Edward White died in a fire at Launch Complex 34 on the Cape Canaveral Air Station. He had entered Apollo 1 for a simulated countdown, along with Command Pilot Grissom and Pilot Roger Chaffee when the fire broke out.
Years later White's wife took her own life.
(How strange to see the earth from the sky and then come back... to float in space like that, barely tethered, earth a modest uncrowned thing. "So peaceful and so fragile," one called it; the size of a marble or a pearl "hanging delicately," said another. And another: "But I did not see the Great Wall.")
Still, there are many practicalities to be addressed (as you would have known even from your rudimentary laboratory.) "It's a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract," the astronaut Alan Shepherd pointed out.
And Neil Armstrong spoke of a feeling that was "complex, unforgiving."
Lyndon Johnson said, "It's too bad, but the way the American people are, now that they have all this capability, instead of taking advantage of it, they'll probably just piss it away."
(But what would it mean to take advantage?)
(And what of how small, and of how fragile... )
(Over and over the word fragile describing this world that has taught me such resistance, the hard of it and brutal, and yet, still--)
Numerous inventions made for space have been adapted by private industry, resulting in such things as studless snow tires, scratch proof eyeglasses (White needed to shield his eyes from the extreme glare of sunlight), the 5-year flashlight, and cordless power hand tools.
The U.S. Space Walk of Fame Foundation was formed in the 1990s as a "major component of a redevelopment master plan designed for Titusville's urban waterfront." There you can "visit the gift shop at the museum and treat yourself, a friend, or a relative to a truly unique space-related gift."
When Leonov and White floated in space they didn't want to come back... They couldn't have known this beforehand. And what is a footstep then, after that, and the feeling of earth (so fragile, so small) beneath a shoe, or the thin tether of breath, or a name, or a day, a boundary, a theory, a bond--