05 April 2009

The Nature of the Dot

I just came back inside from a satisfying viewing of the International Space Station.

It was a good apparition. Since the trajectory for this night's sighting was basically a line across the northern horizon, all I had to do was step out my front door and look up above the row of shops across the street. There was the initial panic and uncertainty in me, the crowd of questions: did I really get the time right? Is it going to be bright enough to see? Is there some haziness or clouds in the NW, where it is supposed to appear? Where is the damn thing?

Moments pass, and more long moments stretching out, and still nothing.

And then, a minute or maybe more after the predicted time, there it is! THERE IT IS! says my whole being. I might even point up at it, just in case anyone strolling by oblivious to this joyous, amazing sight would like to know. Hey, I'll tell them.

And what does it look like? Essentially a dot. A dot, at first murky and ruddyish, then shedding any color and burning brighter and brighter white as it calmy slides across the uncomplaining sky.

It does not look like any plane up there. No plane could possibly follow the speedy but steady trajectory of this high-flyer. And of course, it is just one bright dot, no blinking sidecar accompaniment. A bright white dot moving in a confident but not smug or strident line across a corner of the sky.

I use the verb "moving" in that previous sentence because other verbs don't seem to fit. I riffled through mental verb cards for quite a while before neutralizing it down to just plain "moving." That's because others seem inappropriate: it is certainly not "flying," as this describes what an airplane does. An airplane's action is energetic and motor-driven. Nothing is driving the International Space Station. And though I used "sliding" in the previous paragraph, it is not "sliding" across the sky, either, because something that slides might be in danger of slipping. The ISS's action is completely steady and continuous. It does not slip nor slide. I thought of "trailing," but that suggests that it is following or being pulled by something. No. "Soaring"? Heavens no. "Sailing"? Maybe. Close. But this also suggests that some cosmic wind is pushing it.

I realized during this mental verb hunt that part of the sighting's interest and fascination and strange joy is in its uniqueness.

Why do I like to go out and view this thing? What makes me cajole my workmates into coming out to the parking lot and seeing it fly over? What makes me call my stepmother and my brother, Bill, to make sure they get out to see it? Why do I share the secret joy of sightings with my brother, Roger, in Germany? What is so special, really, about a dot going across the sky?

Our night skies are full of moving dots. It would be unique and preternatural, as it was in the days following 9/11, if NO dots were to be seen up there at any one moment.

Is it the fact that, as I like to remark to people I share this experience with, "there are people in that dot"? It can't be that, as most of the dots we see whizzing across our day and night skies are full of many more people than this singular white one is.

Well, OK. Then what is it? Why is this, for me at least, a consistently exciting thing to see?

It is because it is, in its very nature and true essence, unique.

It is not a plane. It is not flying. It is not in our atmosphere. It is a spaceship!

It is something new in the world. There is only one of them up there, and you can't see it all the time. Sometimes you can see it twice in one evening, and when you do, you get a sense of how damn fast it is truly traveling: it comes around again a mere hour and a half after its first sighting! Around the entire world in an hour and a half!

And all of this, somehow, is captured in the unique look and feel of its motion. It needs a verb of its own. It somethings across the sky. It whatevers across the sky.

It moves in silent steady line across the accomodating sky.

It ISSes across the sky.

1 comment:

  1. I've finally been turned on to the ISS-ing available in my shared sky by the inestimable Jim, and I couldn't be in a more child-like state over it. Beautiful spaceship treat. I'm still waiting for my jetpack, but for now, I have the ISS. -Randy Russell