All was silent
On Pad 39 —

Fifty-one years
And thirty billion miles
Since Armstrong and Aldrin
Dipped their timid toes
In Selene’s Tranquil Sea

The clock strikes 10…
We hold our breath

9, 8, 7, 6, 5…
We close our eyes

4, 3, 2, 1…0
We jolt with liftoff!

As sky clears
And Bob and Doug
Ride a once-dormant Dragon
From ashes to aether
On the thirtieth of May.

Theirs is but one step
Chasing Time’s Arrow
To lift heavy ignorance
And shine a candle
Into quiet Unknown —

To climb up, up
Until we have scaled
Mons Vero
And we are at last
Alone with the cosmos.

Yet as we drift out there
We are never alone —
From Hypatia to Lovelace
Coleman to Jackson
Hamilton to Jemison
And me to you

Our candle joins the chorus
Of Elysian light in a
Cantata d’amore
Across every hue
Of the human rainbow

And so when we witness
Hephaestus’s Crucible of Creation
Breathing light into darkness
Forging stars, nebulae, galaxies
From pure chaos

We will discover a truth
Long known by the sinews
Of the heart —

From dust to dust
And ashes to ashes
We go as one

One Humanity
One Life
One Universe

All stardust.

No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again.

John F. Kennedy

On Saturday, May 30, I sat on my couch with my brother, mother, father, and cat as we together witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle of the SpaceX launch of Demo-2 — the first crewed mission of the Falcon 9 rocket and the first time in nine years since “American astronauts on American soil” were launched from “American rockets.” Juxtaposed with this monumental step forward for the future of spaceflight, however, George Floyd’s death just five days prior to the launch lit the racial tinderbox of America ablaze, a conflagration which soon engulfed all the world over. With 2020 now reminiscent of the 1960s — the shocking dichotomy between spaceflight and racial protests — but with the added stress of a global pandemic, the world more than ever is delicately balanced on a narrow precipice between anarchy and peace. With SpaceX’s launch, I see an unparalleled opportunity for us to come together and unite as one — one humanity against discrimination, racism, and war. I believe spaceflight in particular to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise seemingly desolate world. As I saw that Falcon 9 rise from Earth in all of its glory, for a brief moment I felt as if we were united, engrossed in this moment and inspired by the golden hope of the collective future of our species rather than that of any single person, and that the gangrenous cancer of racism would at last perish in the ensuing inimical climate of congeniality and compassion. 

It is my indefatigable belief that we will overcome the problems that plague our society because, as President John F. Kennedy said at his commencement address at American University a mere six months prior to his assassination, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again.” Though JFK could not see Apollo 11 land on the moon or the International Space Station constructed as a manifestation of change through cooperation, his profound dream of not an “absolute, infinite,” and exceedingly idealistic peace, but of an attainable peace beginning with “mutual tolerance” lives on. If we could lay down our weapons, tear down our fortresses, and see others for who they are instead of who we think they are, then we would have an epiphany: even though one may praise a different god — if any at all — than you do, or believe in an legislative agenda wholly antithetical to you, or follow a rival sports team of yours, or have a different skin color from you, or be of a sexual orientation dichotomous to your own, our petty differences pale in comparison to our infinite similarities like an ephemeral flake melting in the fresh sunlight of a spring morn.

Even though you and I may not know each other, I am confident that we — and all humans — share some commonalities, whether through an appreciation for art, music, books, poetry, adventure, movies, and so on ad infinitum. So even though you may prefer classic rock and I classical, or you Rowling and I Tolkien, we should recognize that we both appreciate music and literature, notwithstanding the minute variations therein. The beauty of humanity is that we are multifaceted — that from our common threads, we spin elaborate tapestries that come to define our nations, our cultures, our families, and, ultimately, ourselves. So rather than criticizing one another for expressing themselves in unique and perhaps even contradictory ways, we should cherish our fundamental commonalities and praise our myriad differences “across every hue of the human rainbow.” We should seek to foster not desolation, but dialogue — not war, but peace. All people should be valued and treated equally, for every life — from the salamander to the sage — matters.

My poem “Stardust: Launch” serves to encapsulate this central message of unity — a unity inspired by spaceflight. A key question that raced about in my head as I watched the launch and one that drove the formation of this poem is, “What will we find out there?” Ultimately, what will we discover as we voyage to space — not in a particular mission or program, but in the end? What will stand out as the culmination of our species through everything?

The poem itself begins with a moment of quiet reflection, establishing a historical perspective on the past, present, and future: “All was silent / On Pad 39.” Pad 39 is the famous launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where some of the greatest successes and painful failures in the journey to outer space have occurred — the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and recently SpaceX missions have launched from that very site. Thus, the quiet past participle “was” is juxtaposed with the dynamism of today — “the thirtieth of May.” 

The following stanza bolsters the historical comparison between today and the days of Apollo, specifically with the reference to the upcoming 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, which put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on “Selene’s Tranquil Sea” — on the moon’s Mare Tranquillitatis, or “Sea of Tranquility.” The reference to Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, furthers the connection to Apollo, the Greek god of Sun and Light (NASA’s upcoming return mission to the moon is named Artemis in honor of the twin sister of Apollo, who is also associated with the moon). Beyond nodding to NASA nomenclature, the allusion to Greek mythology serves to illustrate both how far we have come and yet how little we have changed as a species since the time of the Ancient Greeks — we are still driven by an inexplicable curiosity to discover the workings of the universe and our place in it, and in many ways, we are still wrestling with the persistent problems of inequality and discrimination as our foregone counterparts. The “thirty billion miles” refers to the total distance traveled by the Earth in the 18,581 days from Apollo 11 to Demo-2, again highlighting how even though we have gone through much since 1969, we are fundamentally similar to how we are today. Tides wax and wane, and so too does the shore take its shape from the incessant sculpting of the sea; yet still the shore is the shore, and the sea is the sea — each constant and forever changing.

Stanzas 3-5 capture the paradoxical temporal disparity in both the stretching and compressing of time as everything in those final ten seconds before launch slows to almost a standstill in anticipation; furthermore, the separation and shortened length of the stanzas accentuates the jolting of the launch as the poem abruptly transitions from a five-line, flowing and contemplative stanza to three two-line stand-alone stanzas immortalizing a snapshot of the moment and its accompanying emotions.

Stanza 6 marks a return to the five-line stanzas and, with it, the introduction of a metaphor that slowly gains form in the ensuing lines. I see humanity — from the day the first hominid gazed at the night sky to where we are today with spaceflight a tangible reality — as set upon a path, determined despite all inhibitions to reach the summit of a great peak I call “Mons Vero,” where the sky is clear and the heavy fog of ignorance reigns no more — where we understand everything in the universe as it truly is and at last remove its vaunted veil of mystery; where we shine a candle into the darkness of the Unknown and see as we have never seen before. Mons Vero is Latin for “Mountain of Truth,” and the Latin phrase veritas lux mea, or truth is my light, is applicable to this metaphor and poem because the object of the veritable quest to scale the mountain is to gaze upon the pure light from the cosmos, and we are guided by a candle whose light — albeit obscured by the fog — symbolizes our strive for truth in knowledge and our attempt to understand the heavens with our observations, theories, and models. So, the line “As sky clears” is a double entendre: astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken’s mission was go-for-launch on their second attempt because the weather had cleared, literally creating a window of opportunity through which the rocket could safely pass with full contact with mission control and other support teams; however, the clearing of the sky in the context of the aforementioned image takes on a new meaning: the Demo-2 launch represents a break in the impenetrable cloud layer pervading our minds and a clearer glimpse into our future.

Stanza 7 introduces an important piece of the aforesaid metaphor: “Theirs [Bob and Doug’s] is but one step / Chasing Time’s Arrow.” “Time’s Arrow” is an allusion to the term coined by British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington that he used to describe the motion of time — it flows through and through us, moving asymmetrically, with the point spearheading the future, the shaft speeding through the present, and the fletching lingering in the past. For an explanation of why time moves as it does, we must turn to cosmology and thermodynamics, or the science of heat and energy — the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe, since its calamitous birth with the Big Bang, will perpetually increase until all mass and energy is equalized. Entropy is equivalent to the amount of chaos or disorder of a system, and thus time’s “arrow” moves in a direction such that the available free energy in the universe decreases while entropy, or randomness, increases. From the Second Law of Thermodynamics and other works such as Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, we can show that the asymmetrical movement of time and the corresponding decrease in predictability of the universe are what give rise to the chemical reactions that predicate the cycle of life and death. Therefore, chaos is ultimately responsible for everything we have ever known, not known, loved, and loathed. Love and hate, life and death, light and darkness, thus originate “From [the] pure chaos” of “Hephaestus’s Crucible of Creation,” as discussed in stanza 11. It is so incredibly strange to think that a term we have often used pejoratively for when “things fall apart” is actually the progenitor of the universe, and that without it, there would be no life nor death, no stars nor planets, no nebulae nor galaxies — there would be truly nothing at all without nothing itself. The ancient Greeks understood chaos (or Khaos) as a great “chasm” of “formless primordial matter.” With modern science, we consider chaos to be something that is dynamic and capricious; however, the Greeks, too, knew the supreme importance of the role chaos played in our creation: Hesiod’s The Theogony, which chronicles the genealogy of the gods, states that “at first Chaos came to be,” and from Chaos came Gaea, Tartarus, and Eros. In “Chaos,” as in so many other topics, mythology and science interact in a trans-temporal arena, where ancient ideas can have profound modern implications. Stepping back to stanza 6, there is a reference to “a once-dormant Dragon;” this line has several meanings, but in the context of the above discussion, it illustrates the interplay between science and mythology — the dragons of yore may have in fact been the misconstrued origins of dinosaur fossils, and the capsule that astronauts Bob and Doug took to the ISS is also named “Dragon.” Moreover, the “once-dormant” phrase connects to the opening line “All was silent / On Pad 39” to suggest a period of dormancy or respite in humanity’s ascent of the metaphorical mountain; however, that pause has run its course and we are once again ready to resume our path to the stars — hence “once” juxtaposing past with present. The name of SpaceX rocket “Falcon,” too, is a reference to mythology — or rather to the science fiction of George Lucas’s Star Wars — and is named in honor of Han Solo’s quintessential Millennium Falcon. As with “Dragon,” “Falcon” suggests that we may yet be turning the stuff of legend into reality (though hopefully we will not have to contend with any fire-breathing dragons other than SpaceX’s rockets for now).

Stanza 8 progresses beyond the present into the future, beginning humanity’s reflection after finally reaching that mountain crest, far beyond cloud or air. The period at the end of “Alone with the cosmos” accentuates the silent pausing in that moment, now that we have achieved what we have always dreamed of — unfettered access to every secret the universe has to offer. Stanza 9 breaks that silence with a line whose importance can only be measured in the context of the ending: “Yet as we drift out there / We are never alone,” which appears to contradict the final two lines of stanza 5 that “And we are at last / Alone with cosmos.” It is not an erroneous negation; it is a reevaluation of how the future “we” views ourselves and the universe upon reaching that pinnacle of enlightenment, for in that moment a profound realization occurs — one that begins to answer the question I posed at the beginning: “What will we find out there?” (hint: it extends beyond knowledge concerning the universe).

The epiphany germinates from its tender seed, with humanity looking down at the arduous path we took from base to summit of Mons Vero. As I said in my graduation speech, life is not a journey from point A to point B — chaos and spontaneity predicate all existence. Consequently, when humanity began its climb, there was no viam veritas, no road paved with answers for us to follow; we had to chart our own path. Thus, we were only able to surmount what had been our goal since time immemorial because of the ingenuity of individual people along the way. The oft-quoted axiom that we “stand on the shoulders of giants” is undoubtedly true; nevertheless, we would do well to remember that we are only human — as we write history, we praise those whom “we” favor, and, in turn, others are unjustly sidelined. Labeling certain figures as “giants” creates an artificial distinction between them and others, when in reality any person can leave a lasting impact — they must only believe in the power of their will. In honor of women in STEM and the recent George Floyd protests, I have included six female visionaries with relation to spaceflight — I do not intend to diminish the influence of scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Konstanin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Wernher Von Braun, or Robert Goddard, but I do intend to highlight the seminal and ruefully undervalued achievements of a group of women who seized the luce veritatis and boldly trekked ahead against the darkness. Surpassing all of her contemporaries, Hypatia lived from 355 to 415 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, and was one of the earliest female mathematicians, remembered principally for her intellectualism and philosophy at a time when women were denigrated to mere property. Ironically descending from notorious English poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace follows, and she wrote the first computer program in the early 1840s for mathematician Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Conquering the domain of Zeus, Bessie Coleman became the first female African-American and Native-American licensed pilot, and she fought against racism to inspire a generation of African American men and women to dream and to not let their dreams be pushed aside by others. Moving now to the space age, Mary Jackson — along with Katherine Johnson, Mary Morgan, and others — was one of NASA’s Hidden Figures and the organization’s first African-American female engineer. Leading the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, Margaret Hamilton was an early computer programmer and helped design the software used by the on-board flight computers for the Apollo missions. At last actually reaching the cosmos, Mae Jemison believed she was continuing Coleman’s mission as the first female African-American astronaut and an avid advocate for minority childrens’ involvement in STEM. The final and sixth line of stanza 9 breaks both the five line and the first personal plural pronoun conventions — “And me to you” uses the first person singular nominative pronoun “me” and the second person singular nominative pronoun “you.” The net impact builds off of my earlier comment that “any person can leave a lasting impact — they must only believe in the power of their will.” You and I both can contribute to science and to change the world — with a curious, yet skeptical, mind and a humble heart, the challenge of Mons Vero is yours, clear on the open horizon.

With stanza 10, the reflection transitions skyward to the infinite canvas and concert hall of the cosmos. The first line of this stanza connects directly to the fourth and fifth lines of stanza 6: “And shine a candle / Into quiet Unknown,” for now “Our candle joins the chorus” — we have moved from Bob and Doug’s “one step / Chasing Time’s Arrow” to the collective union of light perched on the top of Mons Vero and stretching endlessly into the night. The aforesaid phrase veritas lux mea is fulfilled here, as our light — our faith in science and reason — guides our journey’s course, and so, by the end, our own lights have joined both those of humanity and those of the stars, an affinity tighter-knit than one might think. “The chorus / Of Elysian light” is an interesting phrase because it compares our heavenly light — in place as well as spirit — to a chorus of love, a “Cantata d’amore.” Since sound travels through compressions — an increase in density — and rarefactions — a decrease in density — in a medium, there is no sound in space because, in the absence of atoms and molecules in a vacuum, there is no vehicle for sound to travel (much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans, as TIE Fighters would become much less menacing without their veritable screams), leaving us with the silent sonority of space; however, though there is no air in the cosmos, there is gravity — gravitational waves, part of Einstein’s General Relativity, necessitates only the fabric of spacetime itself through which to travel and thus to exhibit the same fundamental characteristics of waves that are conducive to sound dissemination: compressions and rarefactions. Like ripples on a pond after a stone splashes through the water, gravitational waves produce rhythmic pulses when violent phenomena — black holes colliding, stars exploding — occur because the energy released during these events is so great that it bends and warps the spacetime continuum. With special observatories using laser interferometry, we can literally listen to the heartbeat of the universe as destruction — and creation — ensue. So even if we cannot sing in space, we can still listen to the beautiful music of the universe — if we try hard enough. One event that is powerful enough to set gravitational waves washing o’er all the universe is the supernova —  nova is Latin for new, referring to the mammoth increase in luminosity of the star as the result of runaway nuclear fission; however, though the “new” star is essentially self-destructing, its death spews enriching elements crucial to star formation, and the shock wave that triggers the gravitational wave actually compresses nearby clouds of gas, thereby catalyzing the development of other stars. In Hindu tradition, there is not one supreme God, but rather a triumvirate of omnipotent deities ruling over a myriad more gods: Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. Hinduism thus treats creation, preservation, and destruction as intimately and intricately linked and interdependent — there can be no new life if the old does not make room for the new; all things — even the mighty cosmos itself — must acquiesce in time’s unbroken arrow.

Aside from sound, there is also a cantata di luce, or song of light (and therefore of truth). The reference specifically to a “chorus / Of Elysian light” exemplifies how out of many voices, lights, hopes, and dreams, come one voice, one light, one hope, one dream — an unparalleled and unfettered amalgamation of our species (E pluribus unum). The allure of that sight atop Mons Vero is augmented by the lines “Across every hue / Of the human rainbow,” where now the metaphor is back to visual imagery — the rainbow is the physical manifestation of that empyrean choir, only reversed. A rainbow, as Newton demonstrated using optics, originates as one light, but as that light enters a water droplet, or prism, with an increased density compared to that of the outside air, the light refracts and reflects, separating into its component colors based on hue, or wavelength, and emerging as the familiar rainbow, spanning from the long wavelength reds to the short wavelength violets. The breathtaking beauty of the rainbow to me is that, like the tapestry mentioned earlier, out of one light — one thread —  comes an expression of seamless unity in diversity. As I see it, humanity is a rainbow because we share fundamental commonalities, but we present ourselves in limitless ways because though we are all human, you are your own person, uniquely you. It is, thus, from the recognition that we all come from the same source that we come together to sing a “Cantata d’amore,” an Ode an die Freude for the pure joy of peace and love in understanding — an understanding of the most perplexing enigmas of both the universe and the soul. To further underscore the fluidity of the chorus and the rainbow, stanzas 9 to the end lack periods, juxtaposing the inexorable rush — like water, long suppressed, at last released from its artificial dam to soar to the ends of the earth — of the monumental epiphany that drives the poem with the start-and-stop, snapshot-based separation of moments through antiquity until Mons Vero is conquered with a triumphant period at the conclusion of stanza 8. The period here, too, gives time to pause and reflect on the journey below and the cosmos ahead, before the organic flow to the ultimate resolution replaces a collection of individually distinguishable moments; the rainbow is reversed, and the choir is singing.

Stanza 12 heralds the final discovery of the most fundamental truth of our lives, the crowning glory of Mons Vero and the long-sought answer to the question as to what we will find at our journey’s end. We had our eyes on the pervasive enigmas of the universe, and so up we climbed, straining to see the light of the heavens — but, in the end, we realized that the truth we had been searching for since the moment of existence was not on Mons Vero nor in the cosmos; it was “Long known by the sinews / Of the heart” — only forgotten by the folds of the mind. Out of the crucible of space exploration, the greatest treasure we found was that which we left behind — our “Pale, blue sphere / Peak[ing] above vapid flats / And desolate sky / Danc[ing] delicately / And sparkl[ing] in a glorious jubilee.” As we look down from Mons Vero, our space stations, our capsules, our colonies, our mines, our greenhouses, our labs, our homes, we never forget our true Home and the world we left behind; we remember — at last, at last! — that “From dust to dust / And ashes to ashes / We go as one” — not as one individual person, but as “One Humanity / One Life / One Universe” inextricably bound together in life as in death, for we are “All stardust.”  

“The Blue Marble” – taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17. Image courtesy of NASA.
Deep Space, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Following the Big Bang, there were only the elements of hydrogen and helium. Over billions upon billions of years, stars, whose cosmic furnaces outmatch those of even mighty Hephaestus, combined elements with nuclear fusion, and through their death — by collapsing, exploding, or colliding — they released all 94 natural elements that constitute everything in the universe, from the atoms in me and you to distant galaxies; we are thus the product of a cyclic process of creation and destruction, driven by chaos and Time’s Arrow. The iron that flows through your veins flows through mine; the calcium that strengthens your bones strengthens mine; the carbon that builds your body builds mine.

 And thus, the structure of the poem tapers to its final coda, as must all things — even time itself. We shrink in scale and significance, and we ultimately depart Mons Vero not as humans, nor Earthlings, nor any other name ascribed to us, but as simply one of the infinite denizens of the universe — a voice, a candle, sailing on a single ship in an unceasing sea of calm and calamity, until Time’s Arrow stops motionless and darkness subsumes all; but from darkness, the chorus of chaos will sing da capo al fine, lento a capriccio e poco a poco crescendo, and light — bearing the seed of Life — will flower forth a new hope, like sprinkles of scintillating stardust launched from the cradle to join the multihued symphony of the cosmos.

Cover image courtesy of NASA/Joel Kowsky.