The countdown is on. Any second now, the NASA space probe will be lifting off to make the long journey to Mars, and the Cité de l’espace space museum in Toulouse is showing the event live. A few seats along from me, a little girl clenches her fists as she stares at the giant screen, utterly enthralled. I almost expect the thrust of the rocket to pull her up off her chair and with it into space.
I was roughly her age when I first became aware that space was an infinite void. Is earth really the only inhabited planet? I was suddenly overcome by the notion that the human species was very, very lonely. I just couldn’t take it in and asked my father, “Are we really all alone in the solar system?”
Most of the visitors at Cité de l’espace today appear to feel comfortable about the universe. I join them on a tour of this space city, drifting and learning fascinating facts along the way. For instance, that there is a difference between interstellar time and earth time. The further we leave our home planet behind, the faster the clock ticks; large masses slow the flow of time. I must be really far away then because the hours rush by like minutes here.
I climb into a space capsule, run my fingers over extraterrestrial rocks, and walk on the surface of the moon suspended from bungee cords. Strapped into a revolving chair, I experience exactly how space sickness feels. As the chair comes to a standstill, I open my eyes again and see the little girl. Her smile reminds me that we are not alone.