Highfalutin’ – June 2011

by Eli Gjeltema

Highfalutin' Gallup JourneyOn March 2, 1972, at 01:49:00 Coördinated Universal Time, an Atlas-Centaur rocket boosted off from Cape Canaveral. Packed in its innards lay a very special shipment, the first satellite destined to explore the outer solar system: Pioneer 10. NASA loaded the thing with gizmos: a Quadrispherical Plasma Analyzer, a Charged Particle Instrument, a Helium Vector Magnetometer, an Imaging Photopolarimeter, and other assorted whosits and whatsits with names straight out of mass-market paperbacks with glowing alien life-forms and death-ray-toting androids on the cover. Also included in the satellite’s 569-pound bulk was a gold-anodized aluminum plaque, not much bigger than that paperback. Etched on its surface is an ultra-condensed summary of human existence: a man and woman standing next to a diagram of our place in the universe, with a map of where Pioneer came from.

This fall, Benjamin Alford, late of the lower bunk, will be studying the philosophy of science in pursuit of a master’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington. It’s right up his alley, the path he was born to travel, but it’s still bittersweet to see him ride it away from the wild city we once co-occupied.

Gabriel Kruis is sticking around. He, too, will plunge into higher education, seeking an MFA in poetry. His institution of choice is accessible by subway, though: Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, is just off the 6 train on the Upper East Side.

As for me, I’ve got one more year of law school, and the end is in sight. I’m working this summer at a large law firm in Midtown, a block away from the blinding lights of Times Square that incubate the clutch of directionless tourists nestled within its irregular boundaries. Gazing down from the window of the 34th floor, I feel a long way from home.

Pioneer 10’s original mission was to gather information during a flyby of Jupiter, but after that task was complete, it kept on cruising. The probe is now shooting toward Aldebaron, all the while carrying with it the plaque marking its source, a continually lingering element of its creators. In the same way, though Ben, Gabe, and I live in worlds far removed from Gallup, Navajoland, and the high mesas, the forces that shaped and molded us, that gave us our vectors and charged our particles, have stamped their own marks into our psyches. We carry them wherever on this broad earth we crawl. Who knows? Perhaps someday we will carry them into space.

The last signal from Pioneer 10 was received on Earth on January 23, 2003. The probe was then 12 billion kilometers away. But though it has ceased to wink backwards at us, it keeps on going, streaming toward the interstellar medium. This is our last transmission, but like Pioneer 10, we are still following our trajectories: the long arcs that spring from Gallup, New Mexico, and curve like rainbows to land somewhere beyond the horizon.

Good readers, this is Highfalutin’, signing off.

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