When The Stars Come Out…

Posted by | Filed under Characters | Sep 26, 2015 | Tags: , | No Comments

Tales of celestial descent are not restricted to ancient myth. Superman, who qualifies as a post-Classic Perseus, also dropped out of the sky when he survived a ballistic trajectory from his home planet, Krypton. As an infant, he was cradled in a projectile launched by his rocket-scientist father to ensure his escape from the catastrophe his world was about to suffer. He landed safely in a cornfield on Earth and grew up to become the Man of Steel–more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to transform the comic-book industry in a single bound.


Modern science fiction has also leveraged uncontrolled descent to Earth into a variety of perspectives on the meaning of contact from outer space. In “Kaleidoscope,” Ray Bradbury’s bittersweet tale of an accident in space, the spacesuited crew is scattered to separate trajectories of gravitational doom. One of them, routed toward Earth, realizes he will be immolated on reentry and wonders if anyone will notice the human meteor returning dust to the Earth.

The film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) showcased glam-rock star David Bowie as an extraterrestrial who arrives like a returning nosecone and nosedives into a New Mexico lake. There’s meaning in this water impact, for global drought is annihilating his home planet. Stranded on Earth, he joins corporate America and reverse-engineers the development of high technology directed toward construction of a rocket that will let him return home and rescue his family. He remains instead, entangled in the bonds of Earth. His real descent is a spirit degraded by human contact. He becomes more like us.

The alien in Starman (1984) accepted Voyager 2’s invitation to visit Earth, but on arrival his spacecraft is knocked off course by a missile attack that suggests we’re insincere about holding an open house for the cosmos. The Starman’s vehicle lands hard in the Wisconsin woods. Despite an extravagantly explosive crash, the visitor emerges from the conflagration as a disembodied light and glides to a remote lakeside house, where it clones itself into a replica of the dead husband of the young widow who lives there. She helps him negotiate the rough and unfamiliar manners of our primitive species, evade capture by government agents and military forces, and arrive at Meteor Crater, Arizona, in time for a pickup from home. Unlike Bowie’s character, the Starman is not corrupted but is enriched by contact with Earth.

A record of another kind of fall from the sky is said to be visible at Roberson Point, in the Venn Passage area at the entrance to Prince Rupert Harbor on the central coast of British Columbia. Here, in what was Tsimshian territory, a life-size, human-shaped depression is cut into a flat expanse of dark schist on the beach. According to one Tsimshian account, the human petroglyph was offered as evidence of a young man’s fall from the sky. Expelled for misconduct from Metlakatla, a nearby village, the man temporarily disappeared and then returned with the claim that he had acquired supernatural powers during a journey to the sky. Accidentally slipping from his heavenly perch, he fell to Earth. When his former neighbors expressed skepticism, he showed them the dent he had made in the rock. Persuaded by this concrete record of his plunge, they “accorded him great prestige as a powerful shaman.”

Journeys to the sky world and free-fall descents are familiar themes in shamanic tradition worldwide. The sky is regarded as supernatural and divine terrain. The shaman seeks transcendental knowledge from gods and spirits, and to get it he must enter their realms.

Not everyone has an aptitude for celestial ascent. In Greek myth, Icarus and his father, Daedalus–who designed the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete–were imprisoned by Minos. Daedalus contrived two sets of wings–of feathers and wax–to airlift the two of them out of the maze. Despite the warning to follow his father’s lead and navigate a middle course between sky and sea, Icarus in exhilaration ascended close enough to the Sun to melt the wax that kept the airfoils intact. The wings disintegrated, and Icarus dropped into the waters near Ikaria, the Aegean island that bears his name.

In 1949 Walter Baade discovered a minor planet–number 1566–that skirted closer to the Sun than the innermost planet, Mercury. Crossing inside Earth’s orbit, it provided an unusual addition to the asteroid catalog, for it also approached the Sun more closely than any other asteroid known at the time. With elements that transport it within 28 million kilometers of our star, the asteroid prompted Baade to name it Icarus.

Once astronomers got to know the asteroid a little better, its “fall” toward Earth generated more concern than its attraction to the Sun. Realizing Icarus makes a close approach to Earth every 19 years, they calculated it would come within 7 million km of us on June 14, 1986. That was still about 16 times farther than the Moon, but at the time it was uncomfortably close. If Icarus, or some other minor planet, were to fall to Earth, it would leave a much greater mark than the human silhouette at Roberson Point.

The threat posed by Icarus actually is not serious. Despite its intersections with our path around the Sun, Icarus will not intercept our planet anytime soon. Its Earth-crossing orbit, however, was enough to inspire the Icarus Project, an investigation into the consequences of an Icarus impact and an exploration of options to avoid it. We now know that a lot more Earth-crossing objects besides Icarus are out there. Donald K. Yeomans, Manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates that there are about 1,000 of these objects 1 km or more across, and more than 460 have been inventoried. We have begun to understand the importance of a complete census and the value of a procedure for diverting any that have our name on them.

Spacecraft imagery of heavily cratered asteroids such as Eros, Ida, Gaspra, and Mathilde suggests the minor planet named for Icarus is also dramatically scarred by impact. And though the mythical Icarus left no sign of his legendary fall, the Earth, too, has scars from space–such as the pockmark in Arizona where the Starman made his rendezvous. Certainly any organisms unlucky enough to have occupied ground zero for these events were also victims of the Icarus theme–the sad finality of a fall from elevated circumstances.


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