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THE FARTHERMOST VIEW

Selected Podpieces

BRIGHT OBJECT IN SKY

One evening a couple of weeks before Christmas, I stepped out onto my back porch. It was one of those warmish, clear nights, and when I looked up at the sky I saw, almost directly above my chimney, a very bright object. With my trifocals I had trouble bringing it into focus, but now and then I saw it clearly enough to confirm my hunch that the bright object was the International Space Station.

Actually, my hunch hadn't sprung full-blown from the sighting; I'd heard on the radio that the Space Station was coming my way.

 

I couldn't discern its movement, but on the Interweb later I found that it had been soaring overhead at 17,150 miles per hour. It emitted a sharp bright light, like an LED among the more diffuse incandescent stars, and I pictured people inside sitting at a counter, like in the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, solemnly taking readings on their tricorders.

 

But it's not just cosmonauts and astronauts up there.. They have thousands of fellow travelers, in a variety of shapes that would put the Mos Eisley cantina to shame. More than 12,000 species of microbes are up there with them, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They're way tiny, but they're our fellow earthlings, and they're orbiting the earth along with their human companions.


Suppose some aliens suddenly beamed themselves aboard the space station. Which species would they think was the leader? Would they hail Penicillium glandicola, or some species of Rhodotorula, that pink fungus that grows in my shower and also on the space station? Would they even think the big lunkish humans were sentient, or would they consider them part of the nutritious support system, brought along to keep the little flagellates and bacilli and spirochaetes healthy, the way human earthlings once carried live turtles in the hold to eat during long sea voyages?

 

Well, whether there are aliens, or Nighthawks, or Astronauts, or Enterobacteria up there, it seems like some kind of miracle to me. That human beings could build a little tin office building off there beyond the clouds, and they and their companions could sit in it as it whirled around the planet; that someone on Earth, probably in an office with no windows, would know exactly where they would be when; that my little radio could be so precisely tuned that it picked up the invisible waves from some earthbound tower telling me that if I stepped outside in Orleans, Mass., at exactly 5:43 p.m., I could see something that might be of interest to me.

 

And there it was, a bright, bright object that was the International Space Station. And lo! I was interested. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, I suspect that wonders will never cease.

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