Who owns the night sky? I wondered about that while sitting on my deck about a week ago, enjoying the near-perfect weather and delighting in the stars as they unfolded overhead. As I looked up, I noticed a string of star-like lights moving quickly, all in a row, from the southwest to the northeast.
My first instinct probably reveals more about my personality than I would like: Can I use an alien invasion as a valid reason for being late to work on the next morning?
Perplexed, I consulted an expert on these matters — my 19-year-old daughter. She casually informed me that the lights were nothing more than a series of low-flying satellites placed in orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX project as part of its Starlink internet service.
Quickly abandoning my fear of an alien invasion, I soon felt a new wave of indignation sweeping over me: What right does a billionaire have to steal my night sky? Yes, I understand the desire/need to provide high speed internet service to the world’s poorest countries so that their young citizens can also watch animal videos on TikTok and play solitaire in the mountains of Tibet. I get that. But stealing the night sky?
I actually remember the first time I saw the Milky Way. Growing up in northeastern Nebraska in the 1960s, I lived in town where I could see a few stars but nothing like the time I spent at a YMCA summer camp along the Loup River. The camp, located a few miles outside of Columbus, Nebraska, more resembled a chapter from “Lord of the Flies” than a structured opportunity for young men to learn about the natural world.
One night we decided to hike into town, via sandbars along the Loup River, just before it flowed into the Platte River. We inched our way along, without flashlights, from sandbar to sandbar, trying to make it to the lights of the city, I think to buy a candy bar. In the middle of the river I looked up and saw a smear of faint lights overhead. I asked one of my male colleagues — I think they called him “Piggy” — about the star clouds, and he immediately enlightened me about the Milky Way, our home galaxy that provides a universal niche for our own solar system.
For several minutes I stood in the middle of the Loup River, mouth open, amazed at what I had missed over the span of my 12 short years of life. All around, the darkness comforted me like a thick quilt while the sound of running water at my feet reminded me that my compatriots would abandon me in a heartbeat as a treat for starving muskrats if I didn’t keep up.
I experienced other milestones in space discovery as I grew up; John Glenn, the first American to obit the Earth, the moon landing on July 20, 1969. I need to add to that list the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977, and I think most readers will agree that the concept of outer space played an important part in my personal development as a young person and enlightened individual. Don’t get me started on Jar Jar Binks and the other Star Wars lunchbox trash that came after Princess Leia educated me with her cinnamon buns hairstyle and that choir-boy robe she wore.
Other distractions aside, the string of lights I witnessed the other night reminded me of my connection to all things dark in the night sky. Elon Musk has already launched more than 1,500 satellites and plans to launch thousands more. What if I like my night sky dark and mysterious? Do I have a right to see the stars and wonder about the gaps between them, what it holds, what it offers to the imagination? I think so. I think I have as much right to the unknown as Elon Musk has to exploiting it and adding to his billions.
Already we have fewer and fewer places where people can witness the night sky. A wide-open prairie at night speaks of beauty, of solitude, of a time to reflect on the aspects of our lives that still offer up a sliver of mystery in a world that seeks to explain everything and tell us nothing.
Keep your satellites, Mr. Musk, and let me watch the stars and the planets with my daughter on a warm late-spring evening.
Contact Rick by email at rick@YardLightMedia.com.