Peter had difficulty sleeping when the astronauts began falling to Earth. We watched the television all night. The camera shifted between frames: the black speck, spotted miles above an Albany suburb, slowly descending as if caught in a bubble; magnified by ten, the astronaut in his white suit, suspended in the sky, his arms out, his palms turned back as if he were hugging the air behind him.

The television announcer’s voice incanted: ‘He has done what no man before him has done. What will he tell us of the frontier of the unknown?’

Peter sat at the edge of his recliner, barely resting his weight, and I thought he looked very much like our dog waiting at the front door, overeager to go on a walk.

A group of people gathered on the dairy farm where it was predicted the astronaut would land. They stood in groups of four, holding sheets taut between them. He drifted down slowly, like a feather. The breeze shifted him slightly west. The crowd cheered as he approached, but then grew quiet as the outline of his body, the red stripes on the legs of his suit, became clear. It was four nuns who caught him in a sheet and then set him carefully on the ground. They watched, and Peter and I watched, on the television, the astronaut lying on his back. The camera zoomed in. Everyone waited. Eventually, he stirred. He stood up, surveyed his surroundings, and walked through the parting crowd toward the road, his feet bouncing slightly off the ground.

Nearly every day a new astronaut touched down on Earth. The television showed them in their new places of work. They became bank tellers, factory machine operators, sign painters, postmen bouncing down country roads with their satchels of mail. They were celebrated, invited to dinners, pie bake-offs, parades. Auto dealerships and high school football teams changed their mascots to the man in a helmet and a white spacesuit. Astronaut-themed parties were all the rage and ladies’ magazines printed recipes for lime-green space punch, asteroid crunch and moon melts. At socials, every girl lined up to dance with an astronaut. Peter and I were happy to see them integrating with society.

I sorted the laundry while we watched the press conference. Five representative astronauts, identical in their suits except for the middle astronaut who had a medal pinned to his chest, sat before a painting of the solar system with our flag mounted on the top pole of every planet.

The reporters flung questions: ‘Is there life on other planets?’ ‘What does infinity look like?’ ‘Does space have a smell?’ ‘If we should happen to exhaust all of Earth’s natural resources or destroy the planet, is there another planet, equally bountiful, to which we might relocate?’

But the astronauts gave no response.

‘From a distance, was it possible, could you see, with grander perspective, Earth’s place in the universe and the reason why we are all here?’

‘Are the microphones on?’ a reporter shouted. ‘Can they even hear through their helmets?’

‘Was it lonely up there?’ another asked.

The astronaut with the medal nodded yes.


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