We Explore the Cosmos, and Vice Versa

Orion nebula, photographed by the Hubble telescope

As I wrote in previous posts, one of my childhood ambitions was to become an astronaut, to be the first little girl on Mars. Astronomy was a related passion. While I never entered either field, the heavens still thrill my earthbound self when I take out the garbage at night or lock up the chickens. I look up and recite their names like poetry: Procyon, Altair, Capella, Algol, Altair… And I assiduously follow news of discoveries in the far reaches of the universe. Now, if all goes according to plan, the next few years will bring us more of the weird and wonderful, more images of the inconceivably distant, more data to overturn our existing theories and teach us how little we know.

On December 24 NASA is scheduled to launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). If nothing goes wrong—and apparently there are 344 points of possible failure—a big golden mirror and five layers of plastic screening will be unfurled when it reaches its destination: a million miles beyond the moon. If something does go wrong, we won’t be able to send up a crew, either human or robotic, to fix it. It’s too far away.

The JWST will cost $10 billion. That seems like a lot, until you compare it to the $5.8 trillion we’ve spent so far on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries since the 9/11attack. Or the $1 trillion (in today’s dollars) spent on the Vietnam War. Or the $768 billion Congress just voted to give the Pentagon—every year they authorize more than the military or the President requests. In 2018, ordinary Americans spent $11 billion in gun stores. After years and years of designing, tinkering with, and testing the F-35 fighter jet, for a total of $400 billion, the military had to admit that the plane is a failure.

Astronomers say the JWST will allow us to look back in time, almost to that “let there be light!” moment. If it doesn’t work as planned, I’m sure lots of people will squawk about the waste of money and refuse to fund such projects in the future. I disagree, and I’m sure lots of other people will be on my side. We should try, try again. $10 billion for learning more about the creation of the universe beats spending trillions on mass murder.

And now how the cosmos explores us:

The Cosmos Invades Our Bedroom

Entangled among the sheets
thigh to thigh, arm in arm
thick and warm as the hills
in summer’s heat
we lie. Until I close my eyes
and odd thoughts enter:
I remember
we are mostly emptiness
electrons whizzing,
quantum waves giving
the illusion of heart, hands, face,
while trillions of neutrinos flash
through us, leaving no trace.

You touch me and all thoughts evaporate,
neurons detonate, and
all our seemingly solid flesh,
all time and space,
melt in the storm
of your embrace.

6 Responses to We Explore the Cosmos, and Vice Versa

  1. Jason Victor Serinus December 15, 2021 at 6:47 pm #

    Oh Martha. This is so beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Martha Shelley December 15, 2021 at 6:52 pm #

    Delighted that you enjoyed it!

  3. Mary Ann Aschenbrenner December 15, 2021 at 8:08 pm #

    Very thought provoking. I never considered the massive amount we spend on defense and military versus space exploration. Thank you.

  4. Martha Shelley December 15, 2021 at 8:43 pm #

    What’s even worse is that the money we spend on defense actually drains this country of resources (besides killing people all over the planet). As I noted in a previous post, the Afghans never attacked us, and 80%-90% of the $2.3 trillion spent in Afghanistan was essentially a transfer from the taxpayer to the military-industrial complex. Another huge chunk is now sitting in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt officials who have since fled the country. I’m sure the same thing happened in Vietnam.

  5. NESTOR L. LATRONICO December 17, 2021 at 6:56 pm #

    Beautiful poem, Martha. I also enjoy a segment of the sky that I san see from my balcony, on the top floor of my building. But I am immersed in a city, and so much light limits the observation.

    I recently discovered that the three stars I used to watch when I was a child is really the belt of Orion! Today most people in the world have never seen the sky, when you see it without surrounding lights. I envy the ancients, or the people before who lived before public lighting, they had the sky for themselves every night! I have not seen the sky like it really is for many years.

    But again, thank you for your poem, which in a way compares to watching the sky at night. Love to you!


    • Martha Shelley December 17, 2021 at 7:36 pm #

      I can only see a handful of stars from my backyard in Portland. But if I drive up into the mountains–ah!

      Orion is a winter constellation here. I was climbing a volcano at night in Indonesia (on the equator), feeling lost and alone in a strange land. It would have been toward the end of July–and there was Orion! It was as though I’d happened on an old friend, and immediately felt at home.

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