The gutter, the stars

By this time next year—or even by this time this year—the International Space Station will be intermittently visible to the naked eye. By assembly completion in 2004, it will be the third-brightest object in the night sky, outshining everything but the moon and Venus. It will be (it is) a symbol of humankind's ability to work together and to achieve great things by doing so.

Right? Right?

I was watching the news the other night and saw President Clinton throwing shade as Shrub trotted behind him through the White House, presumably asking who gets to play with the Big Red Button and where the bathrooms are. It still depresses me that this doughy doofus will be running the free world, so I flipped to Letterman, where Dave was arguing with Tom Hanks about whether our big, bright space station was a good thing or an awful eyesore.

Hanks, as you'd be a fool not to expect, is a big supporter of the space program in general and the station in particular. Eyes shining, he exulted the station as a visible symbol of human endeavor. If I go online to the NASA site, he said, and see that the station will be visible at 3:37am, you can bet I'm dragging my kids out of bed and into the yard to look up and see it. Look! See what humans can do if we put our minds to it. Isn't it beautiful! There it goes, there it goes!

Dave was nonplussed. What gives anyone the right, he asked, to put a big shiny thing in the sky? Why should we have to look at this contraption? Nobody asked him if they could clutter his view of the heavens.

Tom fired back (and he really did, he fired back) by asking if Dave had gotten to voice an opinion on the Trump-built apartment monstrosity going up by the United Nations plaza. (For those of you unafflicted with this knowledge, the Donald's sticking a big-ass tower right by the UN, going to totally screw up the skyline. And New York's getting a Gehry blob like Seattle's too, so there goes the neighborhood some more.)

I was entirely startled by this conversation, not because both the actor and talk-show host on my screen were obviously more intelligent than the ape on his way to the White House or because Hanks was so clearly geeking (and there's something you don't see on network TV every day), but because the two men on my screen were intelligently discussing a fairly obscure science topic and airing two reasonable points of view that I'm having terrible trouble reconciling. There is a pleasure in this. There's deep satisfaction in debating the ethics of making, for all on Earth to see, a permanent mark in the heavens.

As regular readers know, I'm a big believer in cleaning up one's space leavings (although the Iridium satellites that I promised you would be de-orbited in June are still up there annoying astronomers). These man-made objects that bounce light back willy-nilly are an eyesore. And more than perpetrating an eyesore, I wonder if we're committing a sacrilege—a modern-day Tower of Babel, if you like. Who the hell is humankind to put another star in the sky?

Yet I find myself rolling, perhaps with an unjustifiably hopeful millennial spirit, with Hanks. After all, it's not as if we aren't used to seeing Boeing birds overhead (Boeing is NASA's main contractor on the ISS); this isn't an overpriced cell-phone transmitter but a multinational lab for research and study. It's worthy. It's worth looking up at.

And more than this, for years we debated how best to commemorate our entry into the 21st century, with ideas ranging from profound (a worldwide jubilee year, with the debts of developing nations forgiven to encourage their growth and stability) to insipid (New Year's Rockin' Eve 2000). In the end, not only could most of the world not even get the date right—it's THIS WEEK, folks, THIS WEEK—but there was a palpable sense of merchandised-out "so what, big deal." Could the ISS, hanging above us in the twilight sky, inspire us to global harmony and humanity in a way that New Year's Eve 2000 did not?

A species that can cooperate to build this beautiful thing can fix a great deal of its mess on Earth. If cooperation is allowed to trump politics, we can cure disease, fix the wreck we've made of our environment, feed ourselves. It's a long way to the space station from the terrain of hanging chads and Dick Clark specials, but perhaps this brilliant light in the skies—a light we put there ourselves—will inspire us to rise.

 
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