Sample the galaxies

Here’s a visual treat worth a few minutes of your day. This week, the Planetary Society’s blog benefited from a showcase of galaxy images prepared by Adam Block. Mr. Block is Astrophotographer for University of Arizona Steward Observatory. The above image of NGC 918, as seen through a haze of “galactic cirrus” clouds, is just one example.

Even better, the post’s galaxy images come with easily accessible larger versions, enhancing the detail and sense of grandeur. Adam clearly loves what he does for a living, speaking of a galaxy’s countenance and giving a picturesque nod to Isaac Asimov. I highly recommend this post:

Pretty Pictures of the Cosmos: The Cosmic Ocean

Strangite Mormonism gets Due Attention

“God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons by Vickie Cleverley Speek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early on in my reading of Vickie Cleverly Speek’s book about Strangite Mormonism, I found myself dismayed to the point of almost tossing the book out. Given its highlights and summary structuring, the book initially came off to me as a tawdry sequel to Nauvoo Mormonism. All the rumor, scandal, esoteric rituals, and political machinating virtually designed to end in assassination—all combined to make me groan at how quickly history repeats itself.

Make no mistake, Ms. Speek’s writing led me to this disenchanting early impression. In “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons, Speek treats the Strangite movement as the protagonist. The movement’s head, James Strang, while central is not the book’s focus. We see the entire movement born, grow, and then fall apart.

When James Strang is mortally wounded by assassins later in the book, it felt matter-of-fact to me. As if, of course that was going to happen. Nothing especially insightful, just a rehearsal of the same story we saw with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in the early 1840s. As I said, it read like a tawdry sequel.

Fortunately for me, I kept reading. In the chapters following Strang’s death, as his kingdom on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan quickly falls apart, Speek does something very compelling. She spends several chapters detailing the fate of each of Strang’s polygamous widows. The book takes on an increasingly personal feel, with a clear picture of individual human cost. Yet at the same time, through these women’s eyes, and through the perspective of Strang’s children, this splinter sect of Mormonism comes into focus.

Speek presents us with a movement made up of zealots, opportunists, and a great many sincere followers who do all the heavy lifting for the first two groups. She also makes a strong case for polygamy being at best a secondary reason for Strang’s downfall and his movement’s failure. The communal approach, known to the devout as consecration, may have been the fatal civic ingredient. The grievances and atrocities perpetrated against Strangite Mormons receive due attention as well.

For Mormon history enthusiasts wanting to get inside the mind of James Strang, this book may be the wrong choice. Rather than a biography of the man, this is a study of his kingdom overall. Honestly, I don’t feel I know James Strang much better than before I read the book. The Strangite movement, however, has become a moving human affair for me, rather than a footnote to the Brighamite Mormonism I was raised in. Likely the book’s greatest contribution, that is a good reason for reading to the last page.

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The Owl and the Judas

Wheat & Tares

1. Scape-Owl
Today, I saw an owl fly… well, flung
in the midst of heaven,
shock-eyed, wings wrenched back.
Fleeing or expelled from its branch,
wisdom’s icon burst into view,
glaring, tumbling, glaring, tumbling,
till it shuddered, crumpling on
the short grass.
Looking back up the owl’s descent
path, I beheld a vengeful god,
backed by her mother god agape.
I grinned.

judas-nbc-rock-opera2. Rock Opera Judas
Decades prior, in a similar way,
those who didn’t love a show
banned it. Said my mother,
“The brethren said, ‘This
musical is not of God.
Do not watch it.’”
The first time we watched it,
I grinned.
My chubby thighs apostatized,
moshing between the arm rests
of my chair. Onstage,
Judas lashed the heavens
with his rock falsetto,
singing, dancing my dubiety—
religion as a disco ball.
Yet audibly piercing
his thundering metal aria,
my mother sigh-laughed softly.

3. The Fidgety Elect
Sometimes…

View original post 73 more words

An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

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Under the Belly of Enterprise

This week I visited New York City to see The Iceman Cometh starring Denzel Washington, as well as finally seeing an opera at the Met. It was a great trip. One of the highlights was meeting the space shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex.

Until seeing this exhibit, I had failed to appreciate the extent to which NASA tested this vehicle in preparation for space missions. In addition to gliding tests, they strapped it to boosters and also submitted it brutal vibrations to prove the design. Grand engineering!

Here is a brief clip of my previous visit to space shuttle Discovery in Washington DC.

Crashing Eucharistic Adoration

Wheat & Tares

I feel like I’m eavesdropping in Gethsemane,
when I tiptoe into the parish chapel
after dark. A lone Catholic kneels
directly before the monstrance,
before the Eucharist within,
before Christ.
I sit off to the side,
because it feels appropriately subordinate—
safely apart
like an overflow room.

My thoughts wander.
I think a lot about waste.
Wasted opportunities.
Wasted summers.
My wasting.

The chapel walls hold violence.
Everywhere I turn here, there’s a cross—
many of them occupied.
Wasted messiahs?
Wasted bread?
Oops.
I tracked some of my day’s anger
into the chapel. But only
I, and maybe He, can see it.

I spy no side glance from the Catholic,
when I abstain from kneeling
or crossing myself. Still,
I try to match his holiness.
I read scripture.
I bow my head; I close my eyes.
I feel like I’m posing.

I open my eyes.
I read:
Why am I…

View original post 112 more words

A beautiful ISS image for you

ISS048-E-2035_lrg

Hell of a corner office those astronauts have.

The above image comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory website. The images they send me via my email subscription never disappoint. For a full caption, and to learn which landscape is featured, visit Earth Observatory.