Gobsmacked! Miraculous Realities We All Take for Granted

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This is not an article about the weather, or the weather-related things I typically write about. Instead this is going to be about how you and I, and the other humans around us, define ourselves. About not only failing to stop and smell the roses, but not even noticing the roses are there.

The ISS pictured above all the apathetic humans of Earth. Photo: NASA

Last night, you see, the International Space Station passed over Houston (as it did many cities). This is not terribly unusual as the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes or so, at a speed of about 18,000 miles per hour (92 minutes, 36 seconds; 17,239 mph). And it’s been doing so for almost 12 years (Expedition 1: October 31, 2000). Last night in Houston however, the timing with sunset, the mostly cloud-free skies and the pleasant temperatures made for ideal viewing. What’s unusual is that so many people don’t care. That was also the case with the later missions of the Space Shuttle (“It landed? I didn’t know it launched!”), and I’ll guess by the time the Apollo 17 crew reached the surface of the Moon, the population of Earth had well since lost its fascination (speaking of Apollo).

This is not my house, but my view was similar – the silhouette, the sky’s pinkish hue and – oh yeah – the International Space Station. Photo: internet

Such is the human mind: Once it’s done, it’s done. Time to move on. And there’s always the tried and true, “I’ll see it next time.” But there are some truly amazing things going on all around us. Things we don’t notice, things we don’t care about, or things we don’t even know we should care about.

When’s the last time you watched the Indy 500? Did you know the pole speed this year was 226 mph? Are you kidding me? That wasn’t even the highest pole speed (233 mph was the record set in 1996).

What about the Monarch Butterfly Migration that touches almost every one of us in the United States? Did you know that their migration is so massive that when you have the lucky chance to see a Monarch, it’s likely just beginning, enroute, or just ending the journey that defines its life.

What about that supercomputer in your pocket? Do you realize that you have more computing power in your phone than NASA used to launch men to the Moon? Never mind that it makes virtually free phone calls, takes high-res photographs and video and offers you near-instantaneous access to the collective knowledge of the entire history of the planet. Instead, what drives us to the store is, “Oh, it’s in Brushed Aluminum this year!”

What about that mode of transportation sitting in your driveway? Do you ever think how amazing it is? In a few hours you can drive to places that used to take a week by horse-drawn carriage. When my mom was a little girl, the lake house her family visited every summer required an overnight stop. When I was a little boy that same trip was just five hours. It’s a cross-country trip for me now, but my main concern is only what clothes to pack. And let’s not forget satellite navigation, fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, 16-speaker MP3 stereo (what, that was last year?) and air conditioned seats.

What about D-Day? Do you ever think of how incredibly amazing it was that the Allies were able to keep that secret from the Germans? Have you ever thought about what it must’ve been like for the Germans (“Oh! You’re over there?”)?

And what about the beach — have you ever put a grain of sand under the microscope? Every grain is different, every grain is beautiful and, like the Monarch, when you see a grain of sand it’s somewhere on its journey from creation to erosion to being recycled back into the Earth (reminds me of my fellow humans).

If you knew this was at the beach, would you take a closer look? Photo: sandgrains.com

Speaking of humans, that reminds me: The passing of the International Space Station. So there I was standing outside my home last night. It was not quite 30 minutes past sunset with a pleasant pinkish hue to the southwestern sky. Clouds covered skies just to the north and as I was hoping that wouldn’t be an issue, I saw it:  a “star” moving at a moderate pace, almost directly overhead. I looked around for somebody to share this amazing sight with, but there was no one. My gaze returned skyward but then I had to scan again for another person to experience this victory of human determination and technology and — I think, yes! — emerging from the shadows to the north was a woman walking her two dogs towards me. It seemed like it took forever, but when she was within shouting distance I pointed to the sky and well, shouted, “Do you know about the Space Station? It’s passing overhead! Look!” But it was getting darker and maybe she was still too far away because she made no attempt to look up, nor did she seem to even acknowledge me. When she was finally within speaking distance, I said, “Do you know about the Space Station? You’re missing it! It’s right there!” and I pointed to the sky again. I could see a polite smile, and she said, “Hi” as she passed.

The crew of the International Space Station is where? Pictured from the left are NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, commander; Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, all flight engineers. Photo: NASA

It was then I noticed the little white wires leading into her ears (one human miracle distracting her from another). Dumbfoundedly — no, gobsmackedly — I watched her go and then turned my attention to the ISS for the final time. As the spacecraft, with its international crew of six including a woman at the controls, slipped from view, I couldn’t help but think of what we’re missing, and about what we don’t even know we’re missing. I can only guess what that woman was thinking about the silent man pointing at the sky.

You can read more about the International Space Station here. And you can track it yourself here.

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