Earth’s surly bonds stretch thin

aaron_croppedNorthern Minnesota’s iron ranges hold special distinction in American history, but for reasons more than ore. I was down in Crosby preparing for a show last week. There I learned America’s Space Race, the technological marathon that spurred developments like computers and the Internet, got its unassuming start in a Cuyuna Range mine pit

The MANHIGH project lofted airmen in high tech helium balloons to more than 100,000 feet above Earth’s surface, the doorstep to outer space. Three balloons were launched. It was MANHIGH II, piloted by Air Force Major Dave Simons, that emerged from the Portsmouth Mine back in 1957.

Simons reached 102,000 feet, almost getting sucked into a deadly thunderstorm, before landing safely in eastern South Dakota after spending 44 hours in the tiny capsule. His flight predated the launch of satellites and the manned space explorations that would define the 1960s.

More than half a century later, efforts to reach space have paid untold dividends. Reaching beyond our globe created technology that allows me to write this column on a device that weighs a few ounces and submit it to this newspaper from the middle of a forest in Itasca County, Minnesota (while watching the World Series on a high def television).

ManHi006CAfter returning home from Crosby, a friend sent me a Daniel James Devine story from World on Campus magazine. Beginning in 2015, space tourists will be able to book a flight on a balloon not entirely unlike Simons MANHIGH orb, though likely more comfortable. For $75,000, World View Enterprises will send you to 100,000 feet in a pressurized cabin, partial weightlessness, and 2-6 hours of awe-inspiring Earth vistas.

Perhaps fittingly, our trip to the Cuyuna included a detour into Brainerd to see the latest Sandra Bullock and George Clooney film “Gravity.” This space thriller shows the perils befalling a crew of American astronauts after a disaster sends satellite debris sweeping across Earth’s orbit.

“Gravity” is a stunning film, a picture as much about human frailty as our heroic efforts to tame the unforgiving void of space. One realizes that in space a human is truly alone, that sheer chance can rearrange our atoms into the curly tail of a nebulae. Only human technology, the product of thousands upon thousands of human minds, allows the venture to be anything more than suicide.

Another recent read, a Popular Science article titled “Why Mars Colonists Will Definitely Go Mad,” depicts a related problem. The first human colonists on Mars, bound by technology available now, will commit to living the rest of their lives on the Red Planet. They will leave Earth forever, knowingly. Sure, they’ll have a swank space apartment, a digital link to Earth for video messages or some future incarnation of the World Series.

But these people will be alone, connected to Earth by ideas, not matter. And experts rightly assume that the first colonists will lose their minds.

On this planet we wander about, smart phones at the ready, cars that very soon will drive and park themselves. Among friends at a party, we can eat too many cheese wontons at one time, choke and fall down. Sure as sunrise, we’re going to live. You know, probably.

As people stretch loose the bonds of our world, we reach into a literal vacuum — not just absent of air, but the people who keep us alive. That can seem like a grand argument to sit tight, settle down, maybe do something about the yard. Then realize that the sum of what we have has come from this same perilous yearning, reaching for what lies beyond. Human existence seems dependent on human potential. People, climbing over people, to pave the way for more people. At the top of this pile is the lonely realization that we need others.

But hey, look at the bright side. We live on a planet. A planet with air, water and wi-fi. Most of us have plenty to strive for right here. Here’s to those who take the chances.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece was originally published in the Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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