The sky, rather cloudy in recent days, cleared the other evening as bedtime neared, and in the western sky I saw Venus, sparkling and so close I could have reached out and touched her.
Online the next morning I learned Venus these past nights has been as close to the earth and as bright as she gets. After I turned out the bedside lamp, this galactic neighbor of ours gleamed through the west window. I thought of my dad, and of my junior-high science teacher, Mrs. Strand.
The sight of Venus in the night sky reminded me of times my dad gathered us kids together to lie on the south lawn of our farm home and study the sky. He’d point out stars, constellations and planets and count with us the stars in the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. He told stories of the Seven Sisters, Orion and Taurus, thrilling my young mind no end.
Oftentimes I couldn’t see the stars or constellations he described, not even lying close to him and sighting along his arm as he pointed into a purple-black sky shimmering with pinpoints of light. Sometimes I confessed my inability to see what he saw. Other times, not wanting to disappoint him and wanting to keep the stories flowing to fend off bedtime as long as possible, I’d squint in the dark and finally exclaim, “There,’’ as if I were Archimedes discovering the principle of buoyancy in a rubber ducky floating on the soapy water of the tub.
In the days before rural electrification, no place on earth was better for studying the night sky than the back lawn of a farm on the Great Plains. If you grew up in farm country, you understand. If you didn’t, imagine a small house with a garage, barn and granary nearby, but absolutely without light at night. Imagine the next nearest farm is two miles away and the nearest town is eight miles. Every bit of the available light at night comes from the moon and the stars. With no lanterns, head lamps or electric yard lights, the vast sky is a massive, softly glowing blanket. Now imagine you are lying on the grass next to the most important man in your young life, and he is devoting his undivided attention to you and your siblings. You’d remember that as long as you lived, too.
With that background in the study of space, I was receptive to the teachings of Mrs. Strand when I entered science class at Chamberlain. It must have my eighth-grade year, because she was the one who told us about Sputnik, the tiny satellite the Soviet Union launched in the fall of 1957. Sputnik wasn’t much to look at – the size of a beach ball, it weighed less than 200 pounds. It orbited the earth for two or three weeks before the batteries died. A couple of weeks after that, it fell from orbit and back to earth.
Sputnik mattered tremendously to Americans. It meant that the Russians had beaten us to space. We caught up rather quickly, launching our own Explorer within four months of Sputnik and putting an astronaut on the moon in the summer of 1969. For a brief time, though, Sputnik set us back on our collective heels. It was a scary, exhilarating time.
Somehow, I still remember Mrs. Strand, her eyes bright with excitement at the possibilities of space exploration. Probably through newspapers and newscasts, she knew details of Sputnik and its circles around the earth. I suppose she was as frightened as the rest of the country, but she made it a real teaching moment that I remember 63 years later.
She told us Sputnik represented, as far as anyone on earth knew, the first man-made object in space. Suddenly the night sky I used to view with my dad contained one more star, and as Mrs. Strand predicted, the world would never be the same.
She was right, for more reasons than even she could have imagined. Seeing Venus bright in the sky, though, also reminds me that, for all of its changes, the universe has its constants. That’s something to keep in mind.