Ad astra per aspera — to the stars through hardship. The saying applies universally, but personally, it might hit home in different ways.

Vela supernova remnant
Vela supernvoa remnant
Sean Liang / S&T Online Photo Gallery

Ad Astra Per Aspera. “To the stars through hardship.”

These words have been the motto of various groups, agencies, and schools. It’s included on the Seal of Kansas. Sometimes “per aspera” comes first; other times, it lags behind. If it were up to me, I prefer putting the stars first.

A good adage can apply both universally and personally, and this one hits home for me. It’s not only through hardship that I have reached for the stars, but very often because of it.

I cringe at expressions like “no pain, no gain,” as if anything worth doing comes with the baked-in expense of struggle — and that somehow this is admirable and good.

It’s true that discovery and achievement are often earned through effort and perseverance. I have felt the satisfaction of conquering a looming problem, like doing college-level calculus or learning how to collimate a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The rush of breakthrough can be intoxicating, and you might find yourself seeking greater challenges. John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the Moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Our space explorers know the thrill of dangerous adventure.


Sometimes hardship is just plain hardship, unforgiving and serving no purpose, and it can really grind you down. While some blocks can motivate you to push harder and find another way around to realize your goal, barriers like restrictive disability, crushing poverty, or finding yourself living in a war zone are another matter. That balance point, where inspiring and character-building obstacle tips over into distress, is subjective and dynamic.

Perhaps what you’ve overcome to reach for the stars seems commonplace, or “just life.” But if you’ve lived through the pandemic, surfed economic uncertainty, or carved time out from conflict for stargazing, I’d say that counts as a true feat. Or maybe in the midst of recovering from a total knee replacement, dealing with sciatica, and getting Covid all in the space of just a few months, it’s an achievement that I’ve simply risen from the bed and slipped out the door for a few minutes to inhale some starlight. Those small moments in the dark — stolen despite hardship — can mean everything.

For those living life on a difficulty level of legendary mode, small victories and pleasures are cause for sincere celebration. We are burnt out and don’t need to go looking for taller lunar mountains to climb. So let’s appreciate the triumphs, whether it’s designing a massive space telescope to withstand damage from collisions with cosmic particles so we can peer deep into space to unlock our origins, or getting your household chores done in time and with enough energy — or enough spoons — to spare so you can enjoy an hour or two under a clear night sky.

While I enjoy working through problems and finding creative and even fun solutions, I reject the romantic notion that there is nobility in suffering and that oppressive adversity makes us stronger in any desirable way. But the stresses, pitfalls, and heartaches of this world do make me yearn more keenly for open skies.

Stargazing rests a weighted blanket of comfort over my shoulders and reminds me that, somehow, we will push forward. We will continue reaching and learning and growing, as a whole, even with our individual pain. In the aftermath of another mass shooting or climate tragedy, I can step outside. Even under an overcast sky, I can try to spot a tiny break in the clouds, take a deep breath, and find solace in the stars.

Because the world feels especially awful right now, I consoled myself with a small present — to remind me of the cosmos during daylight hours and to honor the birthday I share with the late Carl Sagan. Within a few days, a little box from the women-run, STEM-focused Boutique Academia arrived, containing a stainless steel pendant inscribed with “Ad Astra Per Aspera.”

I’ve scarcely taken it off since.

The night sky is distraction, balm, and invigoration all at once. The familiar constellations and twinkling lights in the dark sky are a catalyst for creative thought and healing.  The cosmos encourages me to choose awe when I feel like I’m stuck at the bottom of a well. To the stars, despite all the rest.


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