When I was a little girl, I was afraid of the sky. I have no memory of where the fear started – I just remember the countless times I flipped upside down on the monkey bars at school, bent in half with the bar pressed into my stomach, looked up at my feet against all that blue, and felt my heart begin to race. I grew up in southern Idaho, which is mostly desert, so the sky was often clear and cloudless. All I could see was blue! So much blue! And next to my feet, it looked like the floor, except I knew it wasn’t the floor, and if I started floating, nothing would stop me and I’d float away to the edge of the universe. Planetariums gave me the same escalating panic – they’re designed to induce a feeling that you’re surrounded by empty sky. On annual field trips all the way through middle school, I would take many deep breaths and continuously rub my feet on the carpet to remind myself I was still on the ground.

I think travel to large cities (possibly also gains in my understanding of physics?) cured me of that fear – the wild, open sky is one of the things I miss all the time about home. And somewhere along the way, once I was no longer afraid to consider space, I got sort of taken with the idea of
Saturn.

(Image credit NASA)

Saturn has been part of our concept of the universe since prehistoric times, since it’s visible to the naked eye (in this part of the world, through most of the month of May). It’s named for the Roman god who symbolizes time and freedom; Galileo looked at it through a telescope three
times over the course of six years, and never figured out whether it had moons or some kind of swinging arms that kept disappearing. Y’all, those were its rings.

(Image credit NASA)

They are made of ice and rock, and we don’t know where they came from. Saturn’s construction is a little like a model of our solar system – a spacecraft is orbiting there now and a probe has landed on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 53 moons (central to one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books , quoted in the name of this story, and one of the most Earth-like atmospheres found so far), to try to understand how the rings were formed, and thereby how our solar system came to be. (The mission has tour dates ; it’s doing a summer cruise around Titan next month. I called NASA to see when tour shirts will be available – strangely, no call back yet.)

So this spring, when optimal viewing season rolled around, I told my husband – it’s the coolest planet, I’m not afraid anymore, and I gotta see those rings. And I did.

We’re lucky to live about half an hour from Griffith Observatory:

Its founding, by a rags-to-riches Welsh miner who was profoundly moved the first time he looked through a telescope, is also pretty inspirational:

The observatory at night offers what I think is my favorite view of all of Los Angeles:

Inside, it’s the best kind of sort-of-old museum – all the science is still correct, but the exhibits are beginning to age, and feel exactly like they did when you were a kid going through for the first time:

When we arrived, there was a public telescope set up outside, an Observatory guide to explain where it pointed, and a queue to see – you guessed it – Saturn’s rings. I couldn’t have felt luckier. I wanted the anticipation to last, so we walked through everything on the grounds before we came back and got in line. We were surrounded mostly by tourists and schoolchildren; no one matched my excitement at being there. The Saturn I saw looked like this:

(Image credit astroavani via AstroBin)

All the pictures I’d seen before and carried in my mind to compare to seeing it live were huge, nuanced, and full of color. This black and white Saturn was small and remote – it felt like meeting a film idol and finding that in person, she has tired, sad eyes. I think I love it more, and more tenderly, now.