The Genesis:3 Project
It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days Genesis 50:3
The end of an era. It’s a cliché that is trotted out with every sports retirement, business shuttering or celebrity death. Yet there are some occasions that validate the cliché.
I had that sense when the spacecraft Cassini vaporized in the atmosphere of Saturn a couple of weeks ago. It was launched in 1997, having been initiated as a project ten years earlier. Technologically primitive by today’s standards, huge in comparison to the drones that we navigate with our cell phones, incredibly limited next to the Mars rovers, this elegantly lumbering exploratory vessel boldly went where no one had gone before.
The photos alone take your breath away. Our earth, a blue dot against the black sky, rests dimly beyond the plane of the rings of Saturn. Geysers spew from one of Saturn’s many moons in silhouette against the distant sun. The largest moon, Titan, seemingly threaded on the edge of the rings against the backdrop of the pastel planet.
The scientific information is mind-boggling. While much of it sounds to science amateurs like me to be nothing more than answers for trivia night (“What is the length of a day on Saturn?”), the facts about Saturn’s gaseous bulk, the discovery of additional moons invisible to the most powerful earth-bound telescopes and the definitive examination of the rings continue our search of understanding of what makes up our corner of the galaxy and, by extension, what makes up us. And back at mission control, twenty years of math and physics were tested and refined to pilot and operate the ship from distances so great they need their own language to describe.
Cassini’s last moments may have been its most incredible. Sent on its final mission into the atmosphere of Saturn, it sent back data that will, as one scientist said, launch a thousand PhDs. And then, incinerated so as not to pollute the pristine moons that may be hospitable to life, it went silent.
If I am a little awestruck, a little bit of a Cassini fanboy, it is at least in part because the team that was Cassini touched my heart as much as the voyage excited my imagination. Project Scientist Linda Spilker was there from the beginning at the Jet Propulsion Lab. She dated, married and raised her family along with the ship. One of the engineers named his daughter Phoebe after one of the moons. The talented singers among the mission team serenaded their colleagues with parodies of show tunes and popular music about the expedition. People cried at the last transmission.
But (so far) two gorgeous insights have moved me the most. Science planner Jo Pitesky updated President John F. Kennedy’s vision when she said, “She’s us. We can’t go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there.” Cassini extended not only our reach, but our dreams.
And program manager Earl Maize melded science and theology (well, for me) when he described Cassini’s ultimate demise. The ship did not crash into Saturn. First of all, there does not seem to be anything solid for it to hit. But the atmosphere of the huge planet vaporized the carefully constructed spacecraft. Within seconds, Cassini the alien explorer and Saturn the object of its exploration were indistinguishable one from the other. Describing what would happen, Maize said, “It will become part of Saturn.”
When Joseph died, it was the end of an era. Though most of the children of Jacob barely knew him, he had been their inadvertent explorer, carrying hopes and desires they themselves did not yet realize. His presence in Egypt was the precursor to the formation of their future selves, the vehicle to the next iteration of the People Israel that Joseph’s brothers could not imagine. They cried at his last transmission.
Hundreds of years later, Joseph’s bones left Egypt with his distant descendants. By then, even with the embalming expertise of the Egyptian artisans, everything about him was vaporized, save the detritus of leathered skin and brittle bones. But also by then, legends were told and children were named and music was composed.
Joseph had become a part of those generations.
NOTE: Fifty explorations of my own, each one beginning with the third verse of the consecutive chapters of Genesis. Thanks for coming along for any part of the ride. After a brief hiatus, I will be back for another forty episodes of the Exodus:5 Project.