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:
we are mostly emptiness
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.