The Fossil Record


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In the beginning, hydrogen

Omega Nebula: Close-Up of a Stellar Nursery

Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester (ASU)

The title of this post is from the following quote by the astronomer, Harlow Shapley:

Some piously record ‘In the beginning God’, but I say ‘In the beginning hydrogen.’

I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part television series Cosmos, and then, reading the corresponding book.  In the opening segment of the first episode, The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, Carl Sagan sat by the water and looked into the screen at me and said:

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean… Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Carl Sagan sounded more like a poet than a scientist. And outer space became something more than the purview of the science fiction novels I was reading at the time. I thrilled at the notion that the elements making up the stars also made me.

My parents were not scientists or academics. My mother was a nurse, my father, a Sicilian peasant who, in America, worked in a factory that made parts for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. For my father, that was just a job, a means to feed and clothe his family. Every morning when he left for work, he left his heart in his garden in our backyard. In the plants and in the soil. That was the place he longed to return to. It was what he understood best of all. He worked long hours standing at a machine, grinding metal components for a fleet of reusable spacecraft–the first of their kind to send people and payloads into low earth orbit. Without his work, and the work of countless others like him, there would be no Galileo probe, a mission that found evidence of the ingredients for life on the icy moons of Jupiter. There would be no Hubble Space Telescope. The stunning image at the top of this post would not be possible. And the International Space Station would never have been built. These are just a few of the achievements of the Shuttle Program.

The first spaceworthy shuttle, Columbia, launched in the morning of April 12, 1981 when I was nine years old.  John Young, the ninth man to walk on the moon, commanded that mission and Robert Crippen, a rookie astronaut, piloted the craft. At that time, the Space Shuttle was the most complex machine ever built by man and my father played a part in its construction. No small feat for a man who grew up during World War II and never even finished high school. The thing I remember most about that day, watching Columbia blast off on our television set, was that my father didn’t watch the launch. He was a part of history, some gear or piece of metal that he had worked on was in that ship commanded by an Apollo astronaut, and my father was planting leafy greens in his vegetable garden, more impressed by the land than anything found in outer space.

Like the Shuttle Program, my father is retired now with just a few pictures of him at the factory shaking hands with visiting astronauts to show for his lifetime of work in the service of furthering our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. I suspect these photos are more for his children than they are for him. Everything he needs is right here on earth, under his feet. Everything growing in the light of the sun, the star-stuff that made us.

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