Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God
Those are the first and last lines of “High Flight” by 19-year-old Canadian Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., who wrote the 14-line sonnet after a solo run in his Spitfire in late August or early September of 1941.
In December, just a few months after that inspirational flight, Magee perished during a training exercise crash. It was his untimely death – and the resulting efforts by relatives to memorialize him – that gave his work the widespread circulation that made it perhaps the most famous poem of World War II.
Taken as a whole, “High Flight” is a “paean to the sublimity and sheer joy of flight,” writes Peter Armenti for the Library of Congress. Magee talks of the “tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds” and delights in having “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings’”
But masterfully elided to highlight the beginning and end, it says something even deeper. It reminds us that humanity has a destiny beyond the grinding, dreary sameness of ordinary existence that is only the more enticing for always seeming just out of reach.
That’s the way Ronald Reagan quoted it on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. He was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union, but instead gave one of the most eloquent speeches of his presidency. He concluded it with this paragraph:
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ ”
It was a somber speech, but there was also a subtle suggestion of hope. We should remember the crew not for why they died but for how they chose to live. Some of our pioneers fall, but our quest goes on.
Hoosier astronaut Gus Grissom put in less gracefully but more directly. “If we die, we want people to accept it,” he said. “We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk.”
He did die, at the age of 40, on Feb. 21, 1967, when the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during a launch rehearsal. Apollo went on and put the human footprint on the moon two and a half years later.
All of that was on my mind Saturday during the live historic launch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station, as I watched with awe and not a little trepidation for the double disaster that could have happened.
If there had been a launch catastrophe, the loss of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken would have been heartbreakingly sad. The setback it would have meant for the space program would have been unbearably disheartening.
We have become a risk-averse society, columnist Michael Barone correctly notes, “much more willing to undergo massive inconvenience and disruption to avoid marginal increases in fatal risk.”
We’re afraid to reach beyond the ordinary because we might fail. We no longer try to escape the dreary sameness. We wallow in it.
I wonder how many Americans skipped watching the space launch and instead segued from being transfixed by the COVID-19 death count to morbidly following the “use any valid protest as an excuse to riot” march of violence across the nation. It’s a sick, vicarious thrill a minute: Watch the economy crumble, then deplore the mindless mobs who set fire to the rubble.
Too bad for those who did.
COVID-19 will be a paragraph in the history books along with all the other pandemics and natural disasters that make the human race flinch. The breach of peace in so many cities, including, alas, a couple in Indiana, will be a footnote, if that.
The space launch, on the other hand, was the story of the century so far, the one that should be remembered as a milestone of the human adventure.
It was the first launch ever by a commercial enterprise. Whatever else you think of them, give Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama credit for that. Bush initiated the partial privatization of the space mission, and Obama finalized it. That’s the step that will restart NASA and get exploration back on the path begun when Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor Christopher Columbus’ sails to the west.
And it was the first launch under the auspices of the Space Command, created by President Trump in December, 2019. Whatever else you think of him, give the man credit for that.
The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard were created in Colonial America with the birth of a nation by leaders who knew they must conquer the land and sea to survive. It took until 1947 for the realization that the air must be conquered, and then another 72 years to put space on the list.
And conquering space means much more than controlling it and defending it. The Space Force is perhaps just one more logical link in the chain, a manifestation of the human need to seek the next frontier. But it is also our first step into the great beyond.
From the surly bonds of Earth to the face of God is a wondrous journey, and we need to be reminded to pause only long enough to rest before we travel on.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.