Tales of the City: One giant leap for... um

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The Independent Online

You are a civilian astronaut called Mike Melvill, and you have just travelled to the edge of outer space in a rocket plane whose design has cost Microsoft $20m. You have been carried miles up into the blue empyrean by a mothership, then released like an abandoned child, and the rockets beneath you have blasted your craft 62 miles above the Earth. Tell us, Mike, about the wonders you encountered...

You are a civilian astronaut called Mike Melvill, and you have just travelled to the edge of outer space in a rocket plane whose design has cost Microsoft $20m. You have been carried miles up into the blue empyrean by a mothership, then released like an abandoned child, and the rockets beneath you have blasted your craft 62 miles above the Earth. Tell us, Mike, about the wonders you encountered...

"You got a hell of a view... The flight was spectacular. Looking out that window, seeing the white clouds in the LA Basin, it looked like snow on the ground. As I got to the top, I released a bag of M&Ms... they spun around like little sparkling things." Is that it, Mike? By no means. "It was an incredible experience. It really was."

Do you feel a twinge of disappointment when the witnesses to remarkable events display no skill whatsoever in evoking them for the news-hungry masses back home? Has Mike got nothing to communicate about his life-changing Voyage to the Edge beyond saying, in effect, it was dead good and really fab and, like, totally awesome. How flat to discover that, 316,800 feet above Los Angeles, the clouds look a bit "like snow". And the people - don't tell me, I expect they look like ants, don't they? As for the M&Ms, they redefine the word bathos, twinkling away in the cockpit like, er, twinkly things. This pilot is clearly the kind of man who would stand under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, say "Wow!", then silently consume a giant Lion Bar, just to make the moment extra-special.

We mustn't be horrible to Mike, though. History is full of people failing to describe astounding sights adequately, because they lack both vocabulary and imagination. For every brilliant reporter, like James Cameron, on the atom bomb trials ("...like a vast door slamming in the lowest depths of hell"), there were a hundred State department nerds who explained to their wives that it was, like, real noisy.

The annals of astronaut-speak are full of duff attempts to encapsulate the sublimity of being very far from home. "I felt red, white and blue all over," said Edward H White, patriotically but boringly. "It's a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing, rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone," reported Frank Borman of the Moon. "It does not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work." No future in estate agency for you, Frank.

And Neil Armstrong, deliverer of the most famous line in the annals of space travel, elected to conduct a small experiment: "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small..." Strange how he sounds like an unusually dim relation of Little Jack Horner.

In our lifetime, commercial space flights may become as commonplace as flying on Concorde used to be. How tragic it would be if our reactions to the experience became a hackneyed litany of roller-coaster rides, of pumice stone as clouds and clouds as snow. We send war artists off to war. Can't we send a war writer? I like what the space pilot Michael Collins said: "I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher," he wrote on returning to Earth. "Then we might get a much better idea of what we saw."

THOUGH I couldn't honestly give a flying fandango about football for the rest of the year, I'll be glued to the England-Portugal match this evening. It's too un-ignorable. I went out on Monday night deliberately to miss the Croatia game, because I just knew we'd lose and I couldn't take the strain. But wherever I went in London, the game came with me. At 7.51pm, inching down High Holborn, there was a strangled cry from my taxi driver as the wily ex-Yugoslavs scored. In the wine bar, I tried having a lively conversation about non-football topics (subsidiarity, GM crops, Big Brother), but the lady at the counter was bursting with news ("Scholes has equalised. Brilliant header. You wanna see the food menu?"). In the Italian restaurant, I tried to concentrate on the spaghetti cartocchio, but the proprietor's brother was watching the game in the pub next door and burst in periodically ("Rooney!" " Santa Maria, Rooney again!"). When Croatia pulled back to 3-2, and the proprietor heard the news, he did something I never thought I'd see outside a Sicilian gangster film: he bit the knuckle of his thumb. By the time I got to the Soho club at 11pm, the streets were full of robust youths, embracing everyone. My nose disappeared inside a burly armpit. Quite frankly, I'd have been far less involved with the blooming game if I'd been at home watching it with a flag, a fag and a can of Tennent's Extra.

ALARMING NEWS from Georgia, USA, where they've been conducting experiments with meadow voles. Meadow voles are the rock'n'roll voles - shockingly promiscuous when mating, and strangers to commitment. They're quite unlike their cousins the prairie voles, who are home-lovin', baby-huggin' critters, who'll bond with one lady prairie vole and stay with her for ever. Scientists examined the difference between the species, and discovered a hormone called Vasopressin, in which meadow voles are deficient. They gave the hapless animals more of the stuff - and the little so-and-sos changed their nature. They bonded with just one female, spurned the wanton overtures of other females, and set up house with their beloveds.

I'm shocked to think of the smooth-talking, randy voles being forcibly changed into docile husband material by a course of chemicals. It'll soon start happening to humans, you mark my words. But how dismaying to think that fidelity may not, after all, be a moral choice, nor true love an emotional commitment to a single mate. They're just a hormone with a silly name.

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