Ground Control to Major Tom

Astronaut Chris Hadfield coudn’t have picked a better send-off from the International Space Station. After all, how many You Tube clips find themselves featured in Time Magazine? A case of right place, right time, right?

For me, growing up when the first moon landings kept me glued to the screens of a large black and white TV, the lyrics of David Bowie’s enigmatic song have reverberated down the years. Looking forward to my first job, Teachers’ College, first car, chasing unattainable girls, dreaming of an exciting life full of achievements. Bowie’s poignant tune was the backdrop to those formative years. It promised me there was something more beyond the day to day issues. A vast unknown frontier beyond the Earth called me out of the ordinary, and ignited dreams that, even though they stayed dreams, have not dimmed with the decades.
Watching Hadfield’s clip, for a while I was 15 again:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you

“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

Talk about an image to take you out of yourself! I always knew of course that all of this was too far out of my orbit to ever be a real option. That was never the point. I was growing toward manhood and this was my hero narrative. Other boys wanted to be a football star or a lead singer in a rock band. I contented myself with dreams of fantastic posibilities that, even though I knew they were not real, were places to which I could escape in my imagination. OK, I was a bit different. Not unique, maybe in the minority. Not alone though.

Like all dreams in my experience, life didn’t match the promise. I never did experience distant galaxies or travel in Doctor Who’s multi dimensional tardus. I have no regrets. Life has been an extraordinary adventure, more complex, demanding, exquisite and fascinating than Major Tom could have forseen. A career, marriage (two of them actually – regret, love, forgiveness, redemption, maturity, gratefulness, and more), children (who taught me what it meant to love), ups and downs and sideways slews – and now here I am in 2013. Wiser and more contented than that emerging young man from those far off years.
Major Tom may have captured the limelight for a moment, but it turns out he didn’t really have a lot to teach me:

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

Major Tom was all promise but he didn’t deliver much. He rode a wave of space technology, carrying the dreams of lots of us beyond the confines of the Earth. Ultimately though, although he was a hero, he was also a disappointment. He was not in control. He was the face of human conquest of space, the final frontier, but he was, in the final analysis, a helpless marrionette. All promise, but doubtful delivery. This, from my ‘mature’ perspective, is the story of the developed world’s preoccupation with technology:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

I continue to watch space travel programs and the night sky. The spark of possibility still dances in the back of my ageing mind. What has changed in me is where I place my trust and values. Human hubris as found in modern technology now leaves me cold, unmoved. The answer to life, the universe, and everything (with apologies to Douglas Adams) is not 42. It is not found in pouring our resources into enormously expensive and risky space travel. It is not found in placing our trust in gadgets. Technology may help stop world poverty (although that remains very doubtful) but it will never fill the void of meaning that exists in the soul of each of us.
Meaning is found elsewhere. Always was, always will be.

Major Tom, I hope it ended well for you. I hope you got back to Earth and lived to discover the richness of inner life that you would never have found in outer space. Human love and frailty covered by divine mercy and forgiveness. I understand quite clearly now, with the benefit of hard experience, the answer is not found in gadgets. It is found elsewhere.

Where are you now, Major Tom? . . .



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