Thursday, October 18, 2012

Logos et Volantes

Though I'm no longer a student at Texas A&M, I've been in College Station lately, and can still check out books from Evans Library. Since I'll be departing soon for Arizona, then Washington, I've been spending as much time as I can get away with lately thumbing through the third floor aviation and space section. First, I jotted down some notes from T.A. Heppenheimer's two-volume Development of the Space Shuttle history (which should be required reading for anyone interested in program management, government science policy, or technology development), and read through Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon (which is severely problematic, more on that later). Over the last week, I've been reading Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, and I've not be disappointed.

There aren't many people who have both made great strides in human flight and eloquently described their work and experience to a broader audience. Lindbergh is one of them (if you're interested in others, I recommend Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Michael Collins, and Mike Mullane). In my reading today, I came across two passages in particular that do much to capture the feeling of awe that flight enables us to glimpse:

"Behind every movement, word, and detail, one felt the strength of life, the presence of death. There was pride in man’s conquest of the air. There was the realization that he took life in hand to fly, that in each bolt and wire and wooden strut death lay imprisoned like the bottled genie – waiting for an angled grain or loosened nut to let it out."

"Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. There was science in each curve of an airfoil, in each angle between strut and wire, in the gap of a spark plug or the color of the exhaust flame. There was freedom in the unlimited horizon, on the open fields where one landed. A pilot was surrounded by beauty of earth and sky. He brushed treetops with the birds, leapt valleys and rivers, explored the cloud canyons he had gazed at as a child. Adventure lay in each puff of wind."

What Lindbergh understood, and Mailer so failed to grasp, was that the severance of contact with the Earth is an experience charged with the numinous by its very nature. Talking about these kinds of experiences, these moments of contact with psychological flow and awe at humanity's place in the cosmos, is very difficult. Thank goodness we have articulate accounts like that of Lindbergh. If nothing else, he reminds me that I should go flying more often.

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