High flight

For Saint David’s Day, our Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, twitters from space: “A perfect pass coming up on Cardiff.” Were it only not, alas, for the clouds over Wales. I discovered his Twitter page this morning, thanks to BBC. The man is an obsessive space photographer, & some magnificent pictures from high over Scotland were re-splashed through the Beeb. In one, the Isle of Skye is depicted, with the late February snows on her peaks — “mist & mountains, a stirring landscape,” our astronaut observes. The islands Canna, Rum, Eigg, Muck, are below her; the Scottish coast to her right, from Loch Torridon down to Loch Nevis. The relief is crisp, from the acute angle: one could almost use it for a walking map. Well, it brought tears nearly to my eyes.

Some Scotsman tweets back: “I live on the island bottom left, here’s a photo I took of you last week,” showing the light streak of the International Space Station crossing the night sky.

Yesterday, the Pope’s resignation, Commander Hadfield clicked remarkable shots looking down the throat of Mount Etna, which is currently quite active. His finale for the day was the huge cyclone, swirling clockwise off the Australian coast. His captions gleam with geographical precision, & the unquenched boyish delight in his adventure. And, too, with unconcealed Canadian patriotism, as he flags an announcement from our space agency with, “Canadian know-how on its way to see what asteroids are made of.” Or, assures the launchers of the latest package for the space station that his Canadarm is ready-aye-ready to catch it in space. But there are friendly words, too, for a Japanese robot.

My uncle Bob (H. Robert Warren) was something to the Canadian space programme, & on secondment to the British, from their earliest days; his name is written in the annals of our Alouette, & with our teams to Houston. Octogenarian now, enfeebled by age, he was once the dreaming child of a very modest farm cottage in Clarkson, Ontario — inspired by his elder brother who went off to fly Spitfires in the last World War. How he longed to fly, himself. He was just too young to follow. But he never looked down, climbing height to height, from aero to astro. In old photos, still, he is my papa’s earnest & adoring little brother; & through the huge family he begatted in his turn, I have long since taken our space effort personally. Whatever tiny part of my taxes go to support that effort, I pay with uncontained enthusiasm. (It is only about 86 percent of current Dominion expenditures that I find morally abhorent; down a couple of points from the previous administration.)

For astronaut breakfast this morning, in the space station, how perfectly Lenten: “Granola with dried blueberries, dehydrated vegetable quiche, instant pineapple juice, instant black coffee. Suit you too?” (There is nothing so Canadian as a blueberry, even dried.) In a video link with His Excellency, our Governor-General, Cmdr Hadfield shows Canadian schoolchildren how to wash their hands in zero gravity.

There are moments like these when all the stars align, & I feel as if I were at home in our world of high technology. And these are the moments when the technology falls away, & I glimpse the entranced faces of the schoolchildren, & the snow on the ancient mountains, & the serenity of the heavens.

“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,” my uncle recited at my father’s funeral, “& danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings. …”

           And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
           The high untrespassed sanctity of space
           Put out my hand & touched the face of God.