We should have known by their faces
when they floated on TV—
they had fallen irrevocably in love
with weightlessness.
Blue shirts above,
red shirts below,
they tangled arms and hovered,
a formation reminiscent
of the painted sacred heart.
Had 300-proof elation
ever been so undiluted
among real grownups?

Four virgins,
three second-timers—
these were seven grateful astronauts
who could hardly believe their luck.
The closest they had come to this rapture
had never been terribly close:
Kalpana from the Punjab
chasing rivers in her small plane,
the Navy flight surgeon spinning, flipping,
that unlikely year before med school
when he briefly dazzled crowds in a circus.
But here, as operatic sunset
filled the overhead fl ight deck windows,
each could see their own reflection,
and superimposed on one’s own mirrored pupil,
the bright and dark sides of the earth, in whole,
with all the endless sky around it.

Red sprites and blue tendrils
awaken the fringes of night;
electrical cousins of lightning
flashing up instead of down.
Roses smell different in space,
yet travel quite easily from bud to bloom.
Silkworms hatch into moths,
puffing out redundant wings.
Without earth’s magnetic field,
flames are no longer shaped like teardrops.
The crew sets tiny bouncing fireballs,
dousing them easily with simple fog.
Huge clouds of dust arise and disperse
far, far above the west coast of Africa.
Willie McCool smoothly levitates
to capture a flying spoon with his mouth.
And the crystalline blue marble
finely mottled white with clouds
looks so gentle without borders,
the Aurora Australis
spraying earthshine at the moon.

After 16 days they’d found their space legs,
and who among us could bear to relinquish this?
Who among us could bear to return
where every thought is set in stone?
Strapped tight in orange pressure suits,
the seven as one divested themselves
of their last remaining burden of gravity.

Just four days before the blazing,
Florida Today ran this headline:
“Columbia’s Astronauts Find Small Miracles
of Life and Light.”
Small miracles, we’ve heard,
can be especially addictive.
The first one may be free,
but soon you crave bigger and bigger miracles,
signs and wonders all around you.
A vault of light is wide and deep,
and the Helix Nebula, we understand,
is anything but overrated.