Man, machine, and world

This is a fantastic image. Ed White on Gemini 4

It’s Ed White, Gemini 4 astronaut. He’s got a look of quiet contemplation fitting of pausing from your groundbreaking experimental space mission to look out on your home world, or the depths of outer space. I can read all kinds of emotions into that expression because I can identify so clearly with it. I don’t know what he was feeling at the time, but I know how it makes me feel. White is doing something substantial. Important. Trail-blazing. Difficult. Demanding, challenging, and risky. And it has afforded him a chance to consider his place in that effort, and in his world and the broader universe.

The blue glow of reflected Earthlight fills the cabin around him, looking much like the inescapably technological hue of Cerenkov radiation. The magnificent planet, and the captivating, alluring depths of space are unseen, but implied by the empty window frame. The whole composition of the image is not, though, about that unseen destination, but rather about the chain of actions, processes, and events that enable White’s contemplation of it. Organization, effort, invention. Machinery. The glow of control-panel buttons falls in neat rows on his cheek. Circuit diagrams from an equipment manual hang above him, wedged next to the window frame. The fasteners, seals. and mechanisms keeping the air in and the vacuum of space out stand between him and the target of his gaze. The machinery surrounds him, contains him, supports him, protects him. And it enables him to do what he’s doing, and to have this moment of contemplation.

But the machinery is useless without the man. It’s built for him — sized to his body, built to provide for his physiological needs, made so he can live in it. Those glowing control panels are designed so he can control its systems with his appendages — they’re made for a human. The windows, too, transmit the wavelengths he can see, and are placed for his convenience. And it’s all designed so people like him can assemble it, understand it, and operate it.

Man can’t go to space without his machines. And he makes his machines to suit him — to explore the things he’s curious about, to extend his senses, to support his life. When he goes to space, he puts his life in the care of those machines — which is to say, in the care of those other humans who design and build and operate them. The relationship between humans and machines will continue to evolve, but the two will continue to depend on each other, to travel into space as an ever more interconnected team. Ed White, the human, is part of that machine, and it is part of him. That co-operation, that integration, that interdependence of man and machine, is what makes space exploration possible, and with it the insights we gain from gazing, literally or figuratively, out the window of the capsule.

That integration and interdependence, however, also brings with it part of the risk that comes with human spaceflight. Ed White’s next mission was Apollo 1. That machine failed catastrophically, taking White and his crewmates with it in a fire on the launch pad. The process of the evolving nature of the way humans and our tools exist together, as a means to change the very nature and limits of our existence and our understanding of it, brings with it the risk of the end to that existence, at least for some of us. We put our trust in our machines, but they are built by us, from our knowledge and skill. The only way to ensure, as far as possible, that that trust is well placed, is to refine those things — our selves, our knowledge, and our skills — as far as possible.

Or we can give up and go back to living in caves. But if we’re going to feel the way Ed White does as he gazes out at the universe, if we’re going to have the chance at the insights he contemplates from his space capsule, if we’re going to reach for all the things we’ve wondered at, we can only keep building. Building our selves, building our tools, and building a world transformed — for the better, if we’re to succeed — by both.

Credit for the image is to NASA/JSC/Arizona State University. See more images from the Gemini missions here.

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