When I was about ten years old I climbed with my family to the roof of our house in Windsor Ontario one summer evening to watch the little light called Skylab sail silently across the dusky sky. Memory is a funny thing. I remember Skylab flying from East to West, but I know that its actual path was necessarily from West to East. However distorted, that childhood memory of Skylab’s passage has stayed with me these forty years. I had seen a space station!
Fifteen or twenty years ago, one early Edmonton morning I looked up and saw a dim light I knew to be one of the Space Shuttles pass overhead, just after re-entry. A few minutes later, I saw the same shuttle on live television landing in Florida. The memory of that strange moment, seeing on television as one of an audience of millions the science fiction machine to which I had just been solitary witness — that memory has also remained clear for me.
The other night at 10:17 my neighbour in his bathrobe came out to our back alley. I felt a bit of a Ford Prefect/Arthur Dent moment but resisted the urge to mention the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My neighbour brought two of his teenage children along and we watched with happy hoots as the International Space Station came into view in the West. It was brilliantly bright! After a moment, Céline yelled out “there’s the other one!” I had briefed the kids earlier in the day that the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vessel Georges Lemaître would be flying in formation with the Space Station, station-keeping before docking the next day. I hadn’t expected Georges Lemaître to be so far behind and so clearly visible. It was as though the ATV trailed on an invisible thread, like a space launch towed behind a sky-yacht or a crystalline caboose on a marvellous celestial train.
I saw Skylab as a boy because my father had noticed the time of its passage in a newspaper. I saw the shuttle because I knew it was returning to earth that morning and looked up hopefully and got lucky. Now, in the Future, once or twice a day my phone clangs with a notification from NASA telling me when the ISS will be visible from Edmonton, where on the horizon it will appear and disappear, how long it will be visible and how high in the sky it will be. On my phone!
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: whatever stupid, cruel, barbaric, inhuman evils or simply foibles we humans get up to, we live in a world where Science Fiction truly has become Science Fact. When I ride Edmonton’s LRT from the south toward Southgate Station, I see Hugh Ferriss’ heroic Architecture of Power in the Metropolis of Tomorrow, a Garden City in forest and parkland. When I look up at night I see the World’s shared Space Station chased by a friendly European robot. I look around on the street or the train and see people talking through colourful strings in their ears to friends half a world away. And each of us has all of human knowledge on little computers in our pockets.
” O brave new world,. That has such people in ‘t!”