By Melissa Johnson
Despite humanity’s eager search for life outside of Earth, space continues to present itself as an inhospitable, frozen vacuum whose only sources of warmth and light are the countless stars scattered across the universe. It can be tempting to anthropomorphize these balls of fire, to project life elsewhere anyway, despite evidence to the contrary.
A glance into a clear night sky reveals stars in many colors, depending on their temperatures, ages, and types. These celestial bodies appear to float on their own in a sea of billions of others, with many light years between each. Some are indeed remote from other stars, but a majority, it turns out, have one or more companions. They dance indefinitely, orbiting one another over vastly different periods of time, from a few minutes to more than half a million years.
In his creative nonfiction piece “A Lunar June,” Brandon Hansen mentions WR 104, a star system whose primary is a Wolf-Rayet (WR) star. The WR star is encompassed by a spiral Wolf–Rayet nebula, often called a pinwheel nebula. Hansen’s piece is a tale of love morphing into friendship, of a man coming to terms with the fact that he can’t have the woman he loves because she is with someone else. He must make the most of the relationship they can have, as friends. This is no small thing for Hansen—he implores his lost love to let them be the kind of friends astronauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin were to each other.
After a failed test flight of the Soyuz 1 spacecraft in 1967, Komarov returned to his loved ones and fellow Russian astronauts not as the Komarov they knew, but as a diminished, lifeless, charred object. Engineers had inspected the spacecraft beforehand and found more than 200 flaws with it, but the powers that be insisted on going forward. Gagarin was Komarov’s backup for the doomed flight and tried to get him bumped, but Komarov sacrificed himself so that Gagarin would not have to die.
Hansen recounts Komarov’s ghastly final moments, when the parachute failed and the descent module crashed into the ground, and tries to temper them with a heartfelt wish:
“I hope Komarov saw these stars as he dove back to Earth – I hope he saw them pinwheel and I hope he saw himself and his best friend Gagarin in them – I hope before the fire whipped the air from his lungs and put him to sleep that he realized that that was soon to be him, that all those white-hot molecules in those stars were little pieces of best friends, spinning together forever now in the range of space, and I hope that brought him some peace.”
Poor Yorick is a journal of rediscovered objects. Sometimes these objects are rich with history. Other times, they are important only to one or two people. At the end of “A Lunar June,” which is styled as an email, Hansen tells his friend that he left some items by the tree where they fell in love. Read our interview with him to learn if she ever discovered them.
Krulwich, Robert. “Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage.’” NPR.org. March 18, 2011. http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/05/02/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage.
School of Physics, University of Sydney. “The Twisted Tale of Wolf-Rayet 104: First of the Pinwheel Nebulae.” Accessed Sept. 18, 2017. http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/~gekko/wr104.html