(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been reflecting on the recent loss of the shuttle Columbia, and concludes that it’s a story as old and familiar as the human race.
(Lange) About four thousand years ago, the mythic hero Odysseus divided the spoils of war and with his ship and crew started for home. Years later, tattered and alone, he reached his native island, only to find it mundane, mean, and unbearable. Odysseus’ mythical voyage is with us yet. Its goal was just to return home; but it’s the confrontation with the unknown that’s the heart of the story.
I stood once on the beach in Nettuno, Italy, gazing west over the dusky Tyrrhenian Sea. There was no horizon; mist clouded the distance, and sea and sky merged into a single gray. There might have been a continent out there, just out of sight – or nothing, forever. Whichever it was, I could feel at a level below consciousness the impulse that has launched all mythical voyages.
It’s an impulse older than history: to hurl our bodies and fortunes at mysteries unseen, peaks unclimbed, and wonders hardly dreamed of. Pytheas of Massilia broke out of the Mediterranean three centuries before Christ, sailed to Scotland, and possibly to Iceland. However far he got, he named it Thule – the farthest, northernmost land reachable by Man – and the rest of us have been chasing it ever since.
There’s no way of knowing how many have perished without a trace. The Polynesians, voyaging in search of new islands, were surely not always successful. At least half the Viking ships that left Iceland for Greenland were never heard of again. Every one of them knew beforehand the odds of survival. And yet they went.
With Columbus, exploration changed from individual to state-sponsored discovery. But the original impulse was the same. And the cost remained high. Jens Munk left Denmark in 1619 with two ships and 64 men to explore Hudson Bay. He returned a year later with one ship and two men. Sir John Franklin left England in 1845 with two stout ships, 129 men, and four years’ provisions, to sail through the fabled Northwest Passage. Neither he nor his crew were ever seen alive again by Europeans.
And we’re still at it. Though satellites have mapped every inch of the planet, we still chase the other side of the mountain — in search, I suppose, of the limits of our potential. Global warming is opening the Northwest Passage, and fixed ropes have made Mount Everest more a test of stamina than of initiative; but interplanetary space remains for us as distant as Thule was for first-century navigators.
Though the cost remains as high as ever, the recent loss of Columbia will check the pace of exploration only temporarily. To paraphrase John Magee’s poem “High Flight” – we’ve known for a long time that when you slip the surly bonds of Earth, dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings, put out your hand and touch the face of God, sometimes you don’t come back.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.