Proof of Concept
In the only picture we have of my great-grandfather, he stands beside a wooden biplane, one elbow resting on the cockpit rim, a cigarette dangling from his other hand. We know very little about his life. Both he and my grandfather flew unofficially and were known for their mechanical ingenuity, although neither completed secondary school. My father, also mechanically gifted, graduated college and flew as a licensed pilot. I grew up surrounded by model airplanes, engine parts, blueprints, and shop tools. I earned a pilot’s license in my late teens, studied physics, then followed in my father’s and grandfather’s paths by entering the aerospace industry.
My ambition was to be an astronaut. But even as I flew, and worked on numerous spacecraft programs, I rarely broke through an ingrained sensibility of ground-based, ground-referencing existence. As far as my internal guideposts were concerned, the non-flat Earth remained an abstraction; and my embodied knowledge of our planet with myself on it, as part of it, was largely the same as it had been in childhood—not early childhood, though. At five or six, I would lie on my back in the grass and look outward (not up) from the surface of the Earth straight into the sky, and launch my senses there.
It must have been later in childhood that I learned to be part of the everyday flatness of things. Ironically, throughout those years my father and grandfather worked on unmanned NASA imaging missions at JPL-Caltech, and we slowly acquired a collection of outdated lunar mapping photographs at home. I ran my fingers over the bound pages: plain paper, simple black-and-white, the images stitched with slim fiducials. If I looked at a picture long enough, features would flip from convex to concave (bubble or crater? ridge or trough?) and back again.
We were mapping the Moon. We had photographed the Earth from the Moon. Still, based on everyday experience, I considered myself a creature of the flat ground. I don’t, of course, mean topographical flatness (there were mountains all around me), but a foundational, referential assumption of living on a flat rather than a curved surface. Unlike the Little Prince’s unmistakably spherical world, the Earth’s curvature is large enough in relation to ourselves that it takes some work to observe. Physics tells us we’re always in flight by virtue of being on this curved Earth, in space, just as physics tells us why we can’t feel that flight. Yet the facts of our shared daily rotation and yearly journey around the Sun are rarely consoling or thrilling enough when we gaze at birds, aircraft, and sweeping clouds. We want wings of our own.
Well into adulthood, I was invited to a neighborhood party for viewing the annular solar eclipse that occurred in May 2012. The hosts provided dark glasses, a sturdy rooftop, refreshments, and celebratory company. It would be the first time I witnessed an eclipse directly, rather than as a shadow cast by some version of a cardboard pinhole. I stood on an unobstructed roof, and looked out (not up) toward the Moon. All at once, I was a body, protruding into space from the surface of a spherical body, looking at another body ringed with light. That other body, much romanticized and studied, was a dark globe with obvious, curved gradation.
Until that day, I didn’t realize that I had always seen the Moon as not only beautiful, mottled, and compelling, but flat. Decades in physics and engineering had not changed an internal image shaped by collective, inherited Western thought: by nursery rhymes, storybooks, paintings, myths, and love songs; by unspoken assumptions, ways of thinking, and ways of being. Even those early lunar photographs, my limited telescope time, and years in aviation had not fully dislodged the flatness. But watching the eclipse in 2012, I viscerally experienced the Moon as a sphere, and myself as standing on a round ball of a planet—all of us in motion. Bodies in space, we changed at the same instant, as if newly freed to hold our three-dimensional shapes.
There I was. And here I am, sometimes, as in those early childhood moments of lying on the grass: lucky when I can recall the fully round, embodied, in-space sensation. Lucky to have learned, forgotten, remembered, and offered moments to relearn the same. Whenever I can be listening, sensing, and otherwise noticing and present, I am part of that motion. Lucky to be both flying and at home. AQ