Along I-65, at the border of Tennessee and Alabama, there’s the small town of Ardmore. There’s a rest stop that’s a good place to stop and stretch your legs. Like most rest stops it has shady spots, a few covered picnic tables, a visitors’ center with moderately clean restrooms and pamphlets on where to see the world’s largest sweet potato, which is the official vegetable of the state of Alabama. And there’s also a Saturn 1B rocket, just a little over eighty-feet tall, that stands next to it.
Or did, anyway. The rocket has slowly been rusting—but at least it’s not orbiting the Earth where it would be space junk—and is now being dismantled with an eventual plan to replace it with a replica.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve passed by it. I’m sure when I was a kid we went by it on one of several trips to the U.S. Space And Rocket Center in Huntsville, although I usually fell asleep on those trips so I missed it as we went by. More recently my wife and I passed by it on our way to the beach. The symbolism there, even in my own head, seems less than subtle: the ocean and space are still considered the last two great unexplored frontiers. The ocean is closer and more limited but still remains more mysterious than space. More people have walked on the Moon than have been to the deepest part of the ocean. It’s funny to me too that before the first submarine descended to the Challenger Deep a lot of scientists assumed there couldn’t be anything alive down there, that the cold, extreme pressure, and lack of oxygen would make life impossible. Now we know that, sparse as they may be, there are starfish, sea cucumbers, isopods, and other things that feed on whatever floats down from above. As for space, well, it seems like humans have always had a sense that something’s out there—we just haven’t found it yet.
All that aside the rocket’s dismantling seems like a sad end. The space program used to be so exciting, so aspirational. The Moon was just a first step. Now it seems like we’ve taken a step back. Mostly, anyway. There are still plans to return to the Moon, and if we could establish a base there Mars is, well, it’s not close, but at least it would be easier to reach.
When I told a friend of mine about the Ardmore rocket being dismantled he said, “That reminds me of Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.”
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Why do we want to go into space? There are a lot of noble and important-sounding reasons: exploration, a better understanding of ourselves and our place in this vast universe, even, possibly, to save ourselves. If we can make it on another planet we extend our chances of survival as a species.
I think it’s also because we want to know we’re not alone. If we can’t share who and what we are with other worlds then, really, why are we here? And if we destroy ourselves before we meet those others, or if we just fizzle out, unable to make that great leap beyond this little sphere we call home, maybe those others will find whatever it is we’ve left. Maybe they’ll despair over having missed us, but at least we’ll have left something that says, we were here.