Rocket Science

Down the end of my street is a gully that has somehow escaped the ravages of suburban development. It hasn’t been stripped of vegetation and reshaped by bulldozers. And it hasn’t been resurfaced with concrete, asphalt, pavers and turf. The plants down there are natives and thrive with no human attention, unlike the shop-bought exotics that require fertilisers and pesticides. It’s down in this gully that I get my head together.

There is a creek that runs through the gully. Surprisingly, it looks pretty clean. Sure, there is a shopping trolley slowly rusting away in one pool. And I wouldn’t dare drink the water. But I can smell its coolness and feel its defiant flow. The creek connects me to something other than the crazy world of money and success.

Then there is the dappled light. Filtered by the foliage of those native trees and shrubs, it makes pretty patterns on the damp lush humus. No need for glycophosphate or noisy petrol driven leaf blowers. Nature takes care of it all. I take off my hat and let my face be illuminated in the soft and gentle light. I take off my shoes and walk along the chocolate coloured bare earth track made by human feet, including mine.

The track takes me to the rock where I sit and contemplate life. At least I start to contemplate, until after a few minutes of silence the forest fauna comes to greet me. Robins come in pairs and perch on the bark on the sides of tree trunks. They look, sense that I’m no threat and then get on with their day. Ants come and touch my feet with their antennae. Sometimes they hop on board and climb around this big clothed mammal. Mostly they skirt around me and communicate back to the nest about what has turned up today. A pollen laden bee pulls its head from out of the hood of a terrestrial orchid and launches itself to come and orbit my head for a few laps.

Nature heals me. I don’t need to contemplate, I need to forget, to let go, to let be.

It is hard to believe that I might be moving away from here. From all of this. Not just to another suburb. Not even another country. But to another planet, never to return. I have a month to decide.

People call me a rocket scientist. It is simpler than my real job title. There is no such thing really as a rocket scientist. The whole human endeavour to put people into space for exploration and colonisation is a team effort. There are engineers and scientists, even psychologists. No one person could do it all. It’s a collective effort, greater than the sum of its individual parts, synergy in action.

My job on Mars will be to monitor and adapt the plant production systems. We have to eat and sustain ourselves first and foremost. We can model and simulate all this here on Earth and even do stuff up on the international space station, but we don’t really know what it is going to be like once we are there. That unknowingness is the main reason I put my name down five years ago.

At parties and other social events I hear a lot of negativity about the space program. The usual complaint is about the amount of money it costs while poverty still exists here on Earth. Normally, I don’t bother to defend my position on the topic. But if pushed, because I am a so-called rocket scientist, I quote some figures on how much is actually spent on the space program and then rattle off how much money is spent on the military, on plastic packaging, on takeaway coffee, on McDonalds and KFC, on perfume, on mobile phone upgrades and on sports stadiums. If that doesn’t deter my detractors, I mention how the top five richest people in the world – all men by the way – from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg could all pitch in and end world poverty, today, and each have thirty-seven billion dollars left over. Some people hate me after that rant. I don’t care because I know it’s not really me that they hate, it’s the truth that upsets them.

One night this feisty woman thought she had me stumped when she argued passionately that even if Mr Microsoft and Mr Facebook solved all the world’s problems, and, even if there is absolutely no life on Mars, that is, it’s just a lump of rock, then what right do we have to invade and despoil it? The arrogance of humankind is abominable, she claimed authoritatively with her very own special brand of New Age consciousness. She questioned my association with such an ignorant and ego driven project. I didn’t bother responding, it would have only confirmed her bias. In my head I thought about how the sun will one day expand and wipe out both Earth and Mars, and how the whole universe is constantly morphing by the processes of birth and death. The minute interplanetary exploratory actions of one species from one solar system in one galaxy at one small moment in time are insignificant when you get your head around the big picture. I let this woman have her moment of righteousness.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a totally dispassionate scientist. I abhor the way we can treat each other. And if I could end all suffering on Earth, for the plants and animals as much as for us, I would. But I can’t. I can only do what I can do, and if that means being a contributing member of a life form springing from one rock to another across a vast vacuous void to get a toehold somewhere, somehow, that is what I’ll be doing. To me, blasting off into space is as much a part of nature as this creek in the gully.

Some things are harder than rocket science. Like this decision to go to Mars or stay here on Earth. With both my parents now dead, and my adult children all wrapped up in their own offspring and other worldly affairs, I don’t feel any obligation to hang around. And considering my poor track record at finding a compatible partner here on Terra Firma, the concept of spending the rest of my life as a single celibate unit on a barren red landscape, would be in many respects an enormous relief. I feel the gravitational pull of the moon and beyond.

A water skink appears out of the leaf litter and joins me on my rock. I talk to he or she. What do you reckon skink? Should I stay or should I go? Its tongue flicks the air and it blinks. Do you drink from the creek? Are your children nearby? It turns it head sideways, sensing the sound waves I create in my throat. Do you know we are both made from star dust? And once again our matter and energy will become a new star?

Two boys carrying sticks and stones appear on the track. They stop and look at me sitting alone and apparently talking to myself. They turn and run back along the gully towards the streets and houses.

In the distance against the backdrop of a leaf blower and a plane in the sky, I hear a boy calling out to others, “Go back! There’s a witch. A witch on a rock.”

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author bio:

photo by Bethany Crawley

Sean Crawley writes short stories, songs, non-fiction and the odd angry letter. He has been published online and in anthologies. He has worked in education, mental health and once owned a video shop in a dying town. Sean’s desk is currently located somewhere on the east coast of Australia. Visit his website at https://wakeupandsmellthehumans.wordpress.com/.