Perhaps one of David Bowie’s most famous songs, the title for this blog comes from one of the lyric lines from Mr. Bowie’s first hit, Wikipedia “Space Oddity” released in 1969 and his first hit. I didn’t know until I did some research on Wikipedia that the song was released just five days before the Apollo 11 launch, and just ten days before the first lunar landing. The BBC refused to play it until the Apollo astronauts had returned safely. Perhaps an oddity in itself, the song was ranked third on iTunes fourteen days ago (forty-six years after its initial release) when it suddenly had a surge in sales due to David Bowie’s death two days earlier.
So much has been written about David Bowie lately, that it makes little sense for me to share any opinions about his music other than to say I loved his hits and found much of his other music far beyond my comprehension – and as a result, not much to my liking. I guess I can also say that the most shocking thing about his death to me was that he could die at all. There was always some doubt in my mind as to whether Bowie was actually human. He seemed much larger than most of us, and his creative acumen and constant persona reinvention made him seem other-worldly. While so many rock stars I was familiar with seemed to be perched precariously on the hairy edge of imminent demise, Bowie somehow seemed beyond that. For me, the realization that Bowie was not only human, but mortal, came as a bit of a surprise. And his death, combined with the recent deaths of Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey and others reminded me, once again, that as a child of the late 50’s, we were going to be seeing lots more headlines like this in the near future. As Neil Young said, “Rock and roll can never die,” but evidently those who create it certainly can. For me, that hurts.
However, the topic of this blog isn’t Bowie, or music, or even death, for that matter. Rather it concerns “tin cans” and the strange coincidence which found me in three different kinds of tin cans shortly after Bowie’s death.
For me the key elements of “Space Oddity” are the sense of human isolation and helplessness that are conveyed in the lyrics – and also that paradoxical comparison of a multimillion dollar space capsule to a tin can. Because ultimately, as we work our way through the lyrics and learn about Major Tom’s apparent death, we find out that in the end, that is all that the space capsule becomes – a tin can unable to protect the contents inside.
What makes this all so poignant for me is that we are currently living in a tin can. While our Airstream is significantly larger than the fictional Major Tom’s was, and certainly much warmer and more welcome with my wife and dog as companions – there are times when it can seem incredibly small. Never so much as after several days of hard Southern rain, when it can be difficult to get outside. Suddenly the walls can seem very close and sunshine very far away.
Let me be very clear, a fairly light rain is a “pounding rain” in an Airstream trailer. It can be quite noisy. And a true deluge outside borders on cacophony inside. Our trailer is nowhere near sound-proof, so Sandy and I have become pretty much used to the myriad and general noises that can leak in from the outside. However, immunity to the bedlam we experience inside our trailer during a full-on downpour is something I fear we will never have. Short of barbiturates, large amounts of liquor, or extremely efficient ear plugs, you are not going to achieve uninterrupted sleep through a storm appearing in the middle of the night with this type of habitat. The first time it happened, we both woke up and then nervously laughed. I had to remind myself that we had NOT parked ourselves by a riverbank this time, that indeed we were on high ground, and that we would not count ourselves among the numerous human experiences we had been so quick to label with the phrase “Darwin moment” so many times before. (This from people who only last week spent several days in a flooded RV park next to the Mississippi River in Natchez, MS , when the water was eight feet above flood stage. We are adventurous but not always that smart!) It felt like a hundred drummers were sitting on top of the trailer pounding away at random. And despite stabilizer jacks at four corners, when the wind picks up, there is a definite movement that can ripple through the trailer. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a good thunderstorm, then you feel the booming not only through the sides of the trailer, but through the floor as well. Can aluminum shiver like the little dog inside of it? I think it can. No pun intended.
So you can see how Bowie speaks to me.
Strangely enough, a few days after New Years, we found ourselves heading East again – this time on our way to Biloxi, Mississippi. As you exit Louisiana and enter into MS, you drive right past the John C. Stennis Space Center.
The Center is a rocket testing facility for NASA and as it looked interesting, I decided that I might need to come back and check it out on one of Sandy’s work days. So, strangely enough, on January 12th, the same day that an old David Bowie song was hitting new highs on iTunes, and also the same day that the PowerBall lottery was hitting new highs across almost every state except Mississippi, I found myself looking at my second tin can.
Well, besides rockets and rocket engines and gantries and the like, they also had a lot of historical stuff from the space program. They had a moon rock, and old space suits and some flight simulators. If you ever get a chance to see the 3D IMAX movie, “Space Station 3D” you should take the opportunity. I was the only person sitting in a little theater there and I couldn’t stop watching. The 3D footage from within the International Space Station (ISS) is impressive. It really gives you a sense of what weightlessness is like, and also what it is like to spend days suspended above earth “floating in a tin can”. Watching astronauts take showers and then vacuuming the water off of their bodies is pretty compelling – or drinking water globs out of the air. I also particularly enjoyed a celebration scene where one guy was launching peanut M&M’s across the room in very slow motion while other astronauts were floating around the cabin catching them in their mouths. Sleeping vertically within a “tie down” sleeping bag is pretty cool too.
Not far from the theater was a scale model of the U.S. Destiny research module which is part of the ISS. You may have guessed, just exactly about the size of our trailer.
Two feet shorter and two feet wider (28′ x 14′) this tin can felt like it had just about same interior space as our trailer – without the bathroom, shower, stove and bed, of course. Also there was one exception: Destiny has lab equipment on all four walls – because there is no floor.
Now, the picture that I am showing here, does have a floor. This is kind of necessary since we have gravity down here in Mississippi, but the real one has lab equipment on all four walls. And because there is no up or down, they had to mark the port and starboard sides of the module in the interior as well as the forward and rear directions. With no windows in the module and no gravity, I guess it is very easy to lose your sense of direction. While working, you either hold onto the many handholds they have within the lab, or if you need both hands, you strap your feet into a variety of bindings they have at various locations around the lab so that you can stay in one place. This is definitely not your typical space ship from the David Bowie’s 1960’s. But the feeling inside was similar. You experienced a sense that there is very little around to protect you from the blackness outside.
Okay, well let’s fast forward a couple of days to January 15th. Another work day for Sandy, I decided to head East from Biloxi instead of West. This trip found me in Mobile, Alabama, at Battleship Memorial Park. For some reason, this trip has introduced me to numerous WWII war museums – which has been interesting to me. My Uncle Tommy fought and died in the Battle of the Bulge and over the last couple of years, I’ve visited his gravesite in Belgium and made an attempt to learn a lot more of what went on over there. Well, anyway, the USS Alabama, a WWII battleship, is parked in Mobile, Alabama, so I thought I would go check it out.
The BMP has a lot more than the Alabama. A tribute to U.S. military might and history, they have a B52 bomber, numerous other weapons of war, and an entire building filled with airplanes dating from WWII through recent stealth designs. The Alabama is fantastic though. They have three different self-guided tours which allow you to wander and explore around the ship. There are lots of places to hurt yourself if you are not careful, and you can wander into some pretty tight places like deeply into the engine rooms, and also into the gigantic 16″ gun turrets (the shells were 16 inches in diameter). This would never happen in California where someone might break a toenail and sue the state. For the next two hours I wandered all over the Alabama. The scope and size of this ship is amazing. At times there were up to 2500 men on board – so the kitchens, the barracks and the mess halls were immense. The equipment required to run the 16 inch guns was impressive, with elevator equipment which carried powder charges from two stories below up to the guns. Armor plating is up to 18 inches thick in some places. Eventually I made my way all the way up to the top of the ship and it was there that I saw my third tin can.
On the other side of the aviation building lies the USS Drum, a diesel and electric powered submarine from WWII. It has been pulled out of the water to reduce damage to the hull and visitors are welcome to walk through it. It seemed very strange to me that I was entering into yet another small enclosed space so soon after Bowie passed away.
In a way, a submarine is just another space ship – only in this case, it’s underwater space. While our Airstream is a comfortable home for two people and the ISS for about half a dozen, the USS Drum could hold up to seventy men on board. When you actually walk down into a submarine, you find it inconceivable that you could get seventy men into this tin can. Space was at a premium, and the galley wasn’t a lot larger than the kitchen in our Airstream. To give you an idea of how important space was in the Drum, there were showers aboard, but the crew chose to use that space to store additional food. Because the Drum was used in the Pacific Theatre of the war, they spent a lot of time in hot humid areas of the world. As such, the cold water around the sub would cause water to condense on the inside of the ship, not unlike what happens on the outside of a beer can in warm weather. (Nice can analogy, huh?) With a fairly reliable source of moisture at hand, the crew dispensed with the showers and would use towels to wipe the condensation off the walls and then wipe themselves down. No need for showers. Me? I really appreciate a warm shower, but I guess cleanliness gets sacrificed when it comes to hunger.
As I made my way down further into the sub, I began to get the same feeling that I did in the Destiny module. I don’t really get claustrophobic. It wasn’t the fear of tight enclosed places that was most palpable. For me, it was the sense of what would exist on the other side of those walls. It took little imagination to think about what it might be like to be three hundred feet under the surface of the water, hull creaking, and just a few feet of steel separating me from something not quite as cold as space, but easily as deadly. I thought about how this same technology led to deep sea submersible research vessels that can dive to 12,000 feet, and how there must be an incredible sense of pressure so unlike the incredible sense of vacuum which exists outside of the ISS. It was really quite incredible to think of dozens of men living for weeks inside this ship.
In the end, I came full circle on my Tin Can Tour and drove back to our trailer in Biloxi. The week had been unique. I’d spent the last four days in three different states, and experienced a sense of what it might be like to be deep in space, or deep under water. I had made my way through fifty years of the space program, and then back to the early 1940’s and World War II. Space and time travel. All the while, humming David Bowie tunes and finding so much in my adventures that could be related back to Major Tom. Suddenly, our Airstream was that much larger – warm, inviting and infinitely spacious. I could open the windows. I could open the doors. I was thankful for gravity and the breathable air just outside. There is a store right around the corner.
For some reason, I decided to barbecue some Cajun sausages that night. We hadn’t had rain for several days, but, in my infinite wisdom, I picked a cloudy night to cook outdoors. It was just starting to spit a little bit. I soon found myself outside with my headlamp on, a hooded rain jacket over my head, and my finger poised above the red button that lights the burner on our little Weber propane grill.
“Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.”