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    by Mary Beth Ellis
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When I received the phone call informing me that I had been accepted to the Colorado Art Ranch , it was a great shock.  Each session has a theme, and the applicants are expected to submit material connected to said theme.  The theme for this go-round was water.  And, for my submission packet, I included:  One essay about having obsessive-compulsive disorder, one essay about a nice nervous breakdown, and one opinion column about expanding the space program to colonize Mars.  I'm thinking no other writers applied.

So this meant that I had to theme it up to cover lost... theming. 


For the glorious concoction of wires, connections, computers, and titanium on the launchpad, gravity is what feeds the rainbirds.  A spindly tower houses the water until six seconds before launch, and then the great pounding of the mechanical flash flood—the barriers are removed, and gravity brings it crashing down as shuttle goes up.

The space shuttle is a mechanical marvel; over two and a half million parts must tend to their own business while getting along with the others in order to launch over four and a half million pounds and bring two hundred and thirty thousand pounds worth of powerless orbiter back down again.  And yet the roar from the engines which propel it produces so much of one natural reality—sound—that it must be controlled by another.  This triumph of human engineering would shake apart were it not for the most basic element of life.  The same great washes of the ancient sea lapping at the base of the launchpad, the earliest pathways of this nation, the very conduit of conception—this enables the movement of the symbol of the modern age.

There have been 132 performances and four tests of the sound suppression system.  The most recent performance check came as part of the return to flight program in the wake of the loss of the shuttle Columbia.  Less than a year after, officials stood in hardhats on the empty launch gantry, cheering as three hundred thousand gallons of life itself dashed away grime and salt and despair.  It splashed on their khaki pants, it danced free in the Florida sunshine and dripped into temporary bathtubs for scrub jays, and then it returned itself to the sea.  Baptized thus, cleansed thus, we began again.

The Altitude of Tragedy

It wasn’t just the shattering of the spacecraft; it was where the pieces wound up.  When we think of Challenger, we think of sky—that piercing, frozen sky quite wide enough to hold the blooming fireball—we think of that sky and not what lay beneath. Aerodynamics are not meant for the ocean floor, and yet there they were-- a bit of a wing visited by a school of fish, the hinge of a cargo bay door waving with the sea anemones, black heat shield tiles carried to the tourist-laden shores of Cocoa Beach, where small plastic sand pails flashed in a gaudy vacation life against the sand.  When the divers found the crew cabin, the strong aluminum which formed it had collapsed into a twisted mass of edges, wires, and reality.  Harnesses remained firmly winched against the chests of blue flightsuits which rose and fell not with regular breath, but by the random passing of currents.

The shuttle Challenger was named for a scientific vessel which sailed from England. It pushed westward with each wave, unconscious of the day when its namesake would into enter these same waters, slamming to the surface, but sinking weightless and graceful once more as it, too, sought the surface of the sea.

Launchpad With a View

They call it the Constellation Urion, and it is the highlight of nearly every NASA mission—not the launch, not the spacewalks, not the adoring, respectful glances of women and men—it is this, the routine urine dump.

What happens is that when astronauts release personal wastewater overboard in orbit, it freezes, suspended in the vacuum, creating a spectacular, streaming light show.  “We peed all over the world,” veteran Wally Schirra used to say, which was little surprise, as Schirra was a pioneer in urine dump investigation.  He dumped at sunset, he dumped at sunrise and mid-day.  He took pictures of all of it and after he splashed down, he ordered prints of the best ones for his office.

These are the facts of the matter, then—pee in space, seas on the moon.  For the great flat landscapes on the Moon are plastered with marine Earth terms reaching back to the geographical formation of the planet—the Ocean of Storms, the Sea of Tranquility.

When an external tank, the huge orange bottle sucked dry by the main engines of the shuttle, is delivered to the Kennedy Space Center, it arrives not by jetpack or Mach 1, but by barge, genteeling its way from Louisiana up the turn basin of the languid Banana River.  We are not only spacefarers, but riverboat gamblers—betting that the solid fuel won’t burn out of control, that a window won’t crack on orbit, that a glove won’t float free mid-spacewalk…that this is all worth it.

fulfilling at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (3)

[...] the end of her writing residency, Mary Beth has some catching up to do Share and [...]

Great job, MB! You've got a new set of readers! I shared your website with my Psychology students...eager young minds to corrupt...uh, I mean...develop! :) Love you, sis!

Thanks much babe :) I met our new nephew this weekend. He asked me to tell him all about his Aunt Esther.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMB
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