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May a rising wind lift Mir and our capacity for wonder

At press time Mir, though protesting and sputtering, was still aloft. Television pictures showed the old spacecraft as a battered carcass. The U.S. media -- including NCR -- has poked constant fun, in cartoons and elsewhere, at this hobbling symbol of faltering Russian power and prestige.

Whatever happened to wonder?

There is a poem that begins:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sunlit clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of. ...

We resort to poetry when wonder gets the better of us. Or tragedy. Ronald Reagan recited from this poem on the day of the Challenger disaster, expressing the dreams of the newly-dead heroes:

...And while, with silent, lifting mind I've trod
That high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face
Of God.

Up there on Mir, two Russians and an American wrestle with cables and worry where tomorrow's oxygen will come from. Together with their craft they are more than the sum of all their parts. More than a Jay Leno joke. Ten years ago, their countries were hell-bent on annihilating each other. It seems like yesterday all those nuclear weapons were aimed at each other. There are still a lot of bombs to be destroyed, but in 10 years huge new trust has been built. And cooperation. That's progress in this imperfect world.

Mir does seem to suffer from an Edsel syndrome. A space-age lemon. But an enormous, complicated lemon nonetheless. So big and heavy, so many cables and backup systems, such speed so far up there in the air. Millennia came and went when humans could only wonder at birds, envy them. Then, in our century, we slipped the surly bonds of earth, and in our own days we went beyond that into space. It's something to wonder at.

The Russians are struggling down home on earth. In many ways a forlorn land, maltreated by czars, nearly a century of communist thuggishness and now beset by corruption and other hardships, it yet put that permanent space vehicle into orbit. Not totally permanent, as we are finding, yet no one else did even that, including the great United States. It's a lemon to be proud of. And a handsome metaphor for Russia itself, battered but unbowed.

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above. ...
W.B. Yeats, too, was captivated by the infinite spaces, though the death he foresaw for his imaginary airman would be inflicted from earth rather than from the heavens. We make movies about exotic threats from space, but to date the real dangers are more homely.

The three men on Mir worry about a leaking glove, ill-fitting space suits, electricity supplies. On a more homespun level, they change underwear every two weeks, a TV commentator said. We hope they suffer neither claustrophobia nor vertigo. Only a numbed imagination could fail to be affected by both the magnificence and the danger. There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes. One would expect the same in space vehicles, though Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut, said he could find no God up yonder.

At least no God who keeps space vehicles aloft with signs and wonders. There is no interfering God, no God with a pliers and laptop computer to bail anybody out. In that fragile craft the humans must do it themselves. Must overcome all the barriers of language and culture and old suspicions and the everyday fears of being so vulnerable so far from home.

We wish Mir Godspeed. May the wind be at its back.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997