On Christmas Day, Strawberry and I watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. We sit on our coffee-stained two-seater couch, on either side of his ancient laptop. The footage from the launch center in French Guiana is grainy and low-resolution; its colors are muted and grayish. A primeval rainforest watches through the windows. Masked technicians in slacks and polos stare intently at their monitors. One grabs a phone from its receiver and cradles it against his ear, brow furrowed intently. The room radiates the same chilly sense of apprehension as a hospital waiting room. A timer in the right-hand corner counts down.
While we wait for launch, I look up images of the telescope. For now, it has been folded and packed away into the rocket but, once it achieves full deployment in space, it will expand and transform into a pink and silver rhombus with a reflective yellow hexagon mounted atop it like a jewel on a tray. I click through similar images, inspecting it from other angles. From the front, the bright yellow hexagon—the telescope’s mirror—is as vivid as neon lettering against the night sky. Its form seems so unlike the archetypal telescope, which I think of as a heavy metal tube with two directionally opposed ends and an obvious function. I could be presented with such an object and know instinctively where to position my eye, how to aim it at the heavens. The James Webb, in contrast, looks lithe, weightless, alien, inscrutable in its purpose. It looks like an artifact of a lost civilization, lodged deep in the Siberian tundra, or a prop from a weird, cryptic film made in someone’s suburban backyard on a shoestring budget, or a device fallen from mythical Eden, originally made for exclusive use by gods and monsters, and never intended for human hands.
The rocket fires. Yellow, orange, and red pixels wash across the screen in a frenzy. Within minutes, the James Webb has zoomed into orbit. It begins circling the planet, hitting checkpoints that are announced with austere regularity at the launch center. In lieu of real-time footage, a 3-D simulation of the telescope hovering over the Earth plays over the live announcements. The only true image comes from a camera attached somewhere to the rocket apparatus, which captures the telescope in sporadic shots during the final segment of the televised launch, when the telescope separates from the relative safety of the rocket and leaves for space. From this angle, in the strange lighting of space, the departing telescope looks like a silvery-white, vaguely squareish object: a shiny foil yogurt lid suspended against a black velvet background, or a dollop of mercury on a dark tabletop.
“This will be humanity’s last view of the James Webb Space Telescope as it moves to its workplace about a million miles away from Earth,” the broadcaster says. Suddenly, I feel my chest seize with emotion. Bewildered by own reaction, I twist in its grip, removing myself from the feeling so I can observe it clinically, coldly, from a third-person perspective:
She, Emma, feels tears come to her eyes as the hunk of polymer, gold-coated metal, and graphite chugs further and further into the void. She swallows the feelings down to avoid (a) unjustifiably anthropomorphizing a telescope to cope with her own experience of loneliness, and, (b) attracting the attention of her partner, which would be unaccountably embarrassing and might incite a show of comfort on his part.
Emma doesn’t want comfort. She wants to boil in her solitude forever. She needs the shield it provides. She is committed to being radically honest about this need if it means she can cling to it forever. When comfort and love approach her, peaceably, kindly, she steps back immediately, eyes red, and warns them not to touch her. They are giants: huge hands, loud, warm voices. She is bubbling over with a flood of fear that leaves fat blisters on her mind, precluding any possibility of cool-headed temperance.
The blade she carries in her sweaty fist, small though it is, was flattened by an anvil made of her own flesh, cooked at three-thousand degrees, and then sharpened on the whetstone of steel-edged, bitter feelings. She strikes out in panic and the blade sinks in with zero difficulty, cutting meat, bone, and emotion as easily as sponge cake. Comfort and love, divided now into soggy chunks, lie on the sidewalk, and she hovers above them, jittery with adrenaline, still holding the knife.
Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, many miles above and away, proceeds onwards with no knowledge of human dramas, individual or collective. It moves gently, a buoy floating in the soapy, star-laden froth of space, but unflaggingly, towards the mysteries of its fate.