March 26, 2020

On the surreal experience of reading an out-of-date Smithsonian magazine in November of 2019

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by chavisory

Every year for Christmas, for years and years, my grandmother gave me a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine rather than a more conventional present, and being a nerd with very little storage space, I appreciated this.

Being a nerd who also doesn’t have a lot of spare time, this gift also accumulated into quite the backlog of unread issues.

The last several months I’ve been attempting to commit to taking more mental downtime for myself, and also working on getting through my stack of unread Smithsonians, and so often while I’m cooking or waiting for water to boil, I’ll just choose one at random.

And that is how I came to be reading one night, standing in my kitchen, about NASA’s Journey to Mars project, whose first test flight would launch an unmanned capsule called the Orion beyond the moon and back, in the year 2018.

And for a second, it felt very seriously as if I had fallen through a wormhole or slipped into some kind of alternate timeline, or fallen asleep for too long and woken up in an unfamiliar future.

Because I remembered nothing, no media coverage or publicity whatsoever, about a test flight of an impending mission to Mars having been flown in the year 2018.

I checked the date on the cover: May of 2016.

So as late as the spring of 2016, we were roughly on track to be executing an eventually manned mission to Mars, in the foreseeable future.

It felt kind of like reading a sci-fi novel written decades ago, about all the stuff that was supposed to have been invented or accomplished by the year in which you’re currently reading the novel and laughing because that’s not what happened, only more unnerving and much less funny.

I wondered if it had still happened. Or whether NASA had had its budgets for things like this slashed, positions eliminated, development of the necessary science set back by decades?

Surely, if it had happened, it would have been bigger news? We’d all be talking about this, right?

Then again, maybe not. Given the situation.

Or maybe it was delayed not by budget cuts or political meddling, but just by normal engineering problems, and in the face of everything else, that was just never going to make the news and the whole thing slipped quietly out of collective consciousness, waiting for a better time.

The last couple of years virtually everyone I know has been walking around with this sense that time is broken. Too much is happening too fast to keep up with. We’re dealing with assimilating a volume of information basically unprecedented in human history, ecological events of inhuman proportion occurring on human timescales. We don’t know what day it is. We don’t know what happened this morning as opposed to last week. It feels like time is fractured, like something has gone very badly wrong on a fundamental level, but we could never prove it, only keep telling each other, “No, it didn’t used to be like this.”

Holding that magazine felt like holding hard evidence. Like having found a newspaper clipping from in alternate future.

Like a light left on, shining under the door back to the right one.

I wonder if that future is still there somehow.

If we could still get back.

*

(I did actually look up what’s going on right now with the Journey to Mars project, and while it’s not quite on schedule as laid out in the 2016 article, it is still progressing! In the summer of 2019, a second successful test of the Orion capsule’s Launch Abort system was completed, with the next milestone being to return astronauts to the moon!

“In effect, NASA successfully demonstrated that the Orion spacecraft’s LAS can outrun a rocket and pull its astronaut crew to safety in case something goes wrong during launch. As Kirasich indicated, the test is another milestone in the agency’s preparation for returning to the Moon and making the ‘Journey to Mars.'”)

February 18, 2020

Falling backwards (A tiny late valentine to Pluto)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:20 pm by chavisory

I learned from a Twitter friend this morning that today is the 90th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto by researcher Clyde Tombaugh! (I meant to make this post for Valentine’s Day, but this is better.) Only recently did I learn that the now-famous heart-shaped region of Pluto, the Tombaugh Regio, is named for him, because somewhat coincidentally, I’ve become obsessed with this song this week:

But the even neater coincidence is this song, whose lyrics conclude

“The heaviness that I hold in my heart belongs to gravity.
The heaviness that I hold in my heart’s been crushing me”

…was released in November of 2013.

The photographs revealing the heart of Pluto, the Tombaugh Regio, were not released until July of 2015.

(Some notes from the artist on the song and album are here.)