Always a little special for me when I can cadge a snippet of something from my writer friend R, something he passes on along with the freedom to share it with others. I’ve often badgered him with entreaties to let me post something from his stories, or if not a story then an extract from a longer work. In conversation the other day I renewed my request, not really imagining that it would produce a response so quickly. Well, here it is readers—a few lines on what can only be called weird science.
With the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle after so many flights—over 130—it’s not hard to look back if you are of a certain age and remember what the early days of space flight meant to young imaginations. Sputnik 1, the first man made object to be launched into Earth’s orbit in 1957, marked attention shifting away from Saturday afternoon television with programs of aerial dogfights from World War II and serials of daring-do and cowboys riding the range in search of rustlers. Young boys turned eyes heavenward and wondered about the limitless blue sky.
In the early days of the space program, Will and I were always experimenting with lizards in the name of furthering scientific research. And once Will’s father asked why we were torturing those animals. And we had Orville and Wilbur disbelieving looks on our faces, confused by the question of why the thrill of experiencing flight might not translate to green lizards. After all, wasn’t there a Russian dog orbiting above our heads, sending yip yips back to earth so one day Death Rays can be launched from orbit?
Having graduated from games of Indians slaughtering Pale Face Settlers, our bows and arrows were now launchers and missiles. Borrowed handkerchiefs became parachutes draped over the point of the arrow for flight into space, strings from the four corners of the handkerchiefs knotted neatly on the shaft for the floating reentry. So before the first lizard was launched into space, Will’s bicycle was turned over on seat and handlebars, the back wheel now the Johnsville Centrifuge that would generate up to 40 g/s. The first lizard was strapped on and the back-wheel centrifuge started slowly, building up to a speed where the spinning pedal was difficult to hold. Brakes were quickly applied to test rapid deceleration. Look and find the first scientific principle: When placing the astronaut lizard on the centrifuge, always make sure the head of the astronaut lizard is also secured.
Years later, perhaps after one of the space program disasters—the fire that killed the three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967, or the loss of lives on Challenger in 1973 or on Columbia in 2003—I found myself thinking back to those youthful attempts to launch a lizard as far as possible up toward that blue sky, marveling at the cost of achievement in space exploration: animals used and lost, the human toll, the billions of dollars spent to explore and expand what is known about our existence on this speck of sand in the universe. And it always comes down to was it worth it?
With a slight nod to the heretofore unacknowledged contribution of a few green lizards of a Louisiana summer, I say yes.
For more short pieces from R check out the lagniappe add-ons at the bottom of these earlier posts:
Lagniappe One (Lagniappe is a Cajun word meaning ‘a little bit extra.’)