Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Now that we are robotically tapdancing on the Red Planet, I have arrived at the conclusion that astronomers are the happiest people on Earth. They have tapped the keg of delight and become drunk at its spigot, those stargazers, as they peer into the sky and the past at things they will never touch but strive to embrace. They reveal to us all they know and discover, even though a good portion of us don't know what the hell it means. Still, they are cosmic voyeurs who seem thrilled at every pebble found on Mars, every solar flare burst from the Sun.

Notice I don't say astronauts -- astronauts are often very stoic and collected in their thoughts and actions; and for good reason, as they've been off our planet and back again. The recent advancements on Mars has given astronomers a spring in their step and better sex lives, without a doubt. NASA has conducted webcasts of Rover movements, and even Q&A sessions with its female scientists. A smorgasbord of space snippets can be found at . Don't spend too much time there, though. The Flight Director's Update has been shown to cause testicular explosions due to cuddly spaceman cuteness.

Our watchers of the sky are not only giddy at the NASA level, but at the academic level as well. The first science course I took in college was ASTR1020 (Intro to Astronomy). My professor, one Peter Hauschildt, was either German or Austrian, in his late 20s or early 30s, and was undoubtedly one of the coolest sons of bitches I have ever seen. Every Tuesday and Thursday he lectured us enthusiastically in blue jeans and sandals, his thick rimmed glasses zeroing in on every sleeping pupil and medium length hair swaying a half second behind his jutting head. And he wasn't dressing the fit the part; this was how this man was. Several times during the semester, I found him walking through campus with his astro posse which consisted of a couple of TAs who soaked up his quasar machismo and felt invigorated by it. These wannabe Hauschildts had to walk behind the man as he strolled hand-in-hand with his woman, who was also beaming from ear to ear. The only person not impressed by Hauschildt was Hauschildt, which is the true sign of cool. The best part about him was his focus: black holes. Yes! So abstract and dark.

Some of my earliest memories involve astronomers, as my childhood is framed by space shuttle launchings, most notably, the Challenger disaster in 1986. As a young mediaphile, I remember somber press conferences, footage from a camera in mission command (dare I call it Houston?) and the comments of colleagues of those who died in the launching.

Without the dark, the light wouldn't be bright. Space exploration has had many moments of tragedy, and astronomers, even with their sunny dispositions, find these events earthshattering yet reinforcing in their goals. I wonder how they approach their work, by viewing it as war or exploration. While you could equate the two, since they both involve movement, stalemate, loss and gain, they do differ. Do they find the losses inevitable, and perhaps even in their deepest of unspoken thoughts, necessary? I think that they do. Our shuttles are modern sailing ships, and our sails are jets and the cohesion of science and dreams. The loss is not a loss, but a gain, an advance by way of sacrifice.

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