Maxed Out 

Understanding mountains

By G.D. Maxwell

Last Saturday’s two tragic events, one in space, one on earth, couldn’t more neatly bookend the sweep and scope of human experience. They constitute a deep reflecting pool for our collective psyche – who we are, who we were, who we might someday become. They illuminate our hopes and fears and lay bare both the amazing strides we’ve made in knowledge and the astounding ignorance we might never evolve enough to overcome.

Early in our morning of that day, seven adults, adventurers, scientists, explorers, screamed across the lightening skies of the southern United States. They travelled in arguably the most complex vehicle yet devised by mankind. While no one’s certain, their fiery deaths may be laid at the failure of one of the least complex, least technological components of their craft: adhesive. Ironically, it was their collision with Earth’s atmosphere – the very thing that makes life and the human experiment possible, the soup of gasses that should have turned their guided missile spacecraft into a controlled if cumbersome glider – that tore Columbia apart.

Later in the day, seven youths on their own quest of exploration, a personal journey of growth and discovery, crossed paths with the power and the glory of terrestrial indifference. The oft tragic confluence of wrong place-wrong time visited their young lives for maybe the first but certainly the last time. Earth shuddered, shrugged a shoulder and brought down a mighty wall of crystalline water. In the cold and dark of a world turned upside down, they quietly suffocated, passing into memory and breaking the hearts of those who knew them and many who only learned of them in death.

The reaction to both incidents was predictable. Denial, shock, anger… the visceral interplay of emotion and intellect long defined by social science but little understood either by those swept up in it or even those spending their lives studying it.

NASA, government, most in the scientific community, many in the general populace pushed past the grief and vowed to continue firing people into space, as much to discover who we are as what’s out there. The voyage of exploration is just that, a journey. The destination is irrelevant. Goals reached are goals replaced. There will be another, just over the horizon, and another and another after that, an endless string of destinations to fire our imaginations and keep us reaching beyond our grasp. To stop reaching is to stop living, settle comfortably into an easy chair and wait for death by safety, death by boredom, death by stagnation.

Compared to the deaths of seven children in the mountains, the deaths of seven astronauts is acceptable, glorious even. But the loss of seven children trekking through snowy mountains insults the sophistication of a modern, urban society out of touch with nature.

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