Monday, September 06, 2010

The wonder of astronauts

For some time I have been thinking about an event that took place in space several months ago. On the sixteenth of February two astronauts, Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick, new arrivals to the International Space Station on the Endeavor, spent six hours in a space walk uncovering the shutters of a window on a new observation deck, called a Cupola, that had been attached to the space station. The window has seven panels, six of them arranged around a larger, central round portal resembling the petals of a flower. Thirty-one inches across, the largest space window ever built, the window would give the astronauts a 380 degree panoramic view of the universe around them.

What interests me, and keeps coming back to me, that scarcely anyone has mentioned, is the way the astronauts reacted to what they saw through that window as they looked out for the first time: they wept. Shuttle flight director Bob Dempsey said "the astronauts, who are accustomed to views that you and I can't really describe, were moved to tears when they looked out the windows of the Cupola for the first time tonight because the panorama is just spectacular." "I know we talk about the view a lot,” said astronaut Terry Virts, but this one takes your breath away."

A spontaneous moment. It was as if the astronauts, already familiar with the sights of the universe, were unprepared for what they saw. How can we name such a reaction? Was it awe? And how shall we anthropologists account for it? Where does it come from? We are now used to saying, in the words of Clifford Geertz, that human beings look out on the world through lenses that they themselves have spun. Did this reaction come from the lenses? Or was some essence, something more fundamental, even more visceral, in the human being aroused? So far, anthropology has left this quality unexamined.

An ancient shepherd people, who spent their nights under the stars, found words of a different sort for the sight of the universe around them: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth shows his handiwork.”
[Click on the title for a link to the source article.]

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