To Boldly Go Walking on the Sand

Monday, January 1, 2007

Very much of this place we live in -- despite all the hype and hyperbole about being a hub of the universe -- is pretty much the same as a lot of other places. But there are some things about it -- sometimes a job, sometimes a place, sometimes a view of life -- that are close to unique. Almost . . . extreme, like the contrast between ageless rural beauty and a rocket bound for space.

Inside the fence along NASA's base near Wallops Island, Va., the sun glints off the giant communications dishes that are tilted skyward, as if at any moment they might hear mysterious signals from space.

They loom out of the flatland like huge, alien mushrooms and are a part of the weird mechanical flora thereabouts. Elsewhere in the sprawling NASA compound, the superstructures of Navy test beds rise in the distant haze, and not so long ago a modern four-stage rocket was stacked in its heated gantry awaiting a "go" for launch.

After problems caused one launch to be scrubbed, the rocket finally took off last month to carry a couple of satellites into space. But as anxious scientists appeared at pre-launch news briefings, fretting about errant software and simulators, visitors found themselves entranced by the surroundings.

Not the manmade landscape, but the natural. The dishes, antennas and gantry stand in strange contrast to the exotic, semitropical setting of Virginia's Eastern Shore -- a tableau of sculpted salt marshes, loblolly pines, sweet gum and holly and, that week, an Atlantic Ocean that was as serene as a lake.

The snow geese had arrived, by the thousands, a guy from the National Park Service said. And egrets stalked the creeks and tidal pools like assassins.

Along the causeway leading to nearby Assateague Island, a woman stood in the sun by an easel set up beside a van whose license plate read: "I DRW GD."

A photographer nearby aimed a lens at a slate-colored bird that stood motionless in the marsh.

And a grizzled man who had driven five hours from the Shenandoah Valley to surf-fish grumbled that his take had been small but that you couldn't beat the weather. "It is December," he said.

From the warmth of the beach on a late-autumn day, the outline of Wallops was distant and different from the red-and-white-striped Assateague lighthouse, which was built on a big dune in the 1860s, when the locals would tong for oysters.

Yet the NASA skyline was there in the far-off haze, proof that we are at heart a restless species. We probe the heavens with rockets -- peering, listening, calculating, relentlessly curious despite the beauty of our surroundings. And you wonder: Might beings from space one day land at Assateague and find the end of their quest at the beginning of ours?

-- Michael E. Ruane, staff writer

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