When I was younger I assumed that human history was like a ladder, leading upward. But the whole span of it from cave paintings to internet porn is an illusion, at least when you consider the temporary nature of the sun, which will implode or whatever eventually and sweep everything that’s ever been done, every word, every kiss, back into the void from which it came. Even if you kind of shield your eyes from that obliterating eventuality and focus on human history as if it were somehow indelibly real, you can see that we more often disintegrate than advance.
My wife has two shelves of books about the space program. On our first big road trip together, nine years ago, when Abby was in the full bloom of her obsession with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, we digressed from the primary focus of the trip—attending a series of baseball games in different cities—to spend a day at the Neil Armstrong museum in Ohio, where the narrative of a Midwestern boy intensely interested in flight gradually connected with a collective central human quest to explore the unknown and then, more specifically, to perhaps the greatest or at least most iconic moment of that quest, when Neil Armstrong walked on the fucking moon.
He took that giant leap 42 years ago Wednesday. I was rooting for our first kid to arrive on that date, July 20, but no dice. On the bright side, our busted air conditioner was working again, so the pretty miserable last mile of my wife’s pregnancy was not as bad as it could be that day. The air conditioner worked yesterday, too, and then last night it conked out. Oddly enough, it may or may not be working again this morning, but even if it is it seems to be laboring like a shopping cart with a busted wheel, cockeyed, groaning. Maybe that’s what history is, a half-broken thing, haltingly moving.
Scott Sanderson was born 55 years ago today, on July 22, 1956. Today is my wife’s due date. Today I’m waiting for the air conditioning repairman, Maurice, to come back and try to figure out why it keeps breaking, which seems as if it will be particularly difficult to determine now that it’s sort of working again.
In the last room of the Neil Armstrong museum, nine summers ago, Abby and I each played in a simulator booth in which you could pretend to steer a lunar landing module down onto the surface of the moon. The simulator piped in a voice as if from Mission Control that reacted encouragingly to the progress of the landing. I believe on one of my successful moon landings I was told that NASA would be calling me soon. There were kids behind us in line, waiting to use the simulators, so after helming a couple last miraculous leaps forward in human progress we exited the simulators and left the museum to get back into the Dodge Neon we had rented for the trip.
Landing on the moon in a simulator is as close as anyone is going to get to the real thing for a long, long time, or maybe ever. Yesterday, the space shuttle Atlantis landed, ending the space shuttle program. When we got to the moon a little over 42 years ago, it seemed like we were stepping onto a rung that would only lead higher. Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to who knows? But Apollo turned out to be the pinnacle, and after it came Skylab, then as Skylab was falling in flaming chunks back to earth in 1979, the year the photo on this Scott Sanderson card was taken, the space shuttle program was underway. The space shuttle program is over, and there’s not really anything lined up to replace it. No money, no vision. No ladder. Makes me think, perversely, of a Bob Dylan song: “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung/and may you stay forever young.”
Or maybe it’s not so perverse. The song is a prayer Dylan wrote to his newborn child. I know how to strum the song on my guitar and probably will when the kid finally gets here. I’m not religious but I find ways to pray. So here’s one to Scott Sanderson, or at least to the cardboard version of him from 1980, when I was 12 and thought life would be a ladder to the stars, and here’s a thank you to the world that made me feel that way back then, and to my loved ones, and to the kid on the way from the stars, a reminder.