Eagle vs. Armadillo in NASA Rhetoric

“…we can’t keep living off Apollo’s bounty. Currently, the hair of a scientist can turn gray waiting to get their first experiment on the shuttle, let alone the necessary follow-up research.”

—Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator

Yesterday I went digging for speeches by former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. And these days digging is what you must do to find archival material on nasa.gov, especially bookish things like administrator speeches. I dug, dug, dug, like an armadillo you might say.

Daniel S. Goldin, Image Credit: NASA

I wound up at the out-of-the-way, but highly useful, NASA NTRS webpage (NASA Technical Reports Server). They dished me up an interesting speech Mr. Goldin gave at the Space Station Utilization Conference held in Huntsville, Alabama on August 4, 1992. He spoke about Space Station Freedom, the conceptual precursor to our International Space Station.

You are hereby invited to ditch my blog and read the three-page speech in its entirety:

Goldin Speech on Space Station Freedom

In a culture where all NASA speeches exist in the shadow of that one President Kennedy gave (you know the one), it’s understandable this address ended up tucked away in an archive. After all, it promotes a Reagan Era space station that was never actually built. Yet, with impassioned tone, Goldin’s speech effectively lays out the rationale for putting a continuously inhabited laboratory in Low Earth Orbit.

Artist concept image of Space Station Freedom by Tom Buzbee, Image Credit: NASA

On a literary level, I most enjoyed mulling over Goldin’s use of an animal kingdom analogy, which he borrowed from NASA Scientist Rick Chappell. The analogy contrasts a soaring eagle with a scurrying armadillo. In short, when it comes to research and exploration we need to be like an eagle, not an armadillo. Why? Goldin and Chappell portray the high-soaring eagle as having a wise long-range mindset. The burrowing armadillo, however, only cares about finding its next meal.

Zoologists may be better equipped to weigh the merits of denigrating armadillos simply because they cannot fly. I believe there is both engineering and literary merit in honoring critters who are good on the ground. Still, Americans have long loved their eagle mascot for good reasons. Any metaphor which clarifies the wisdom of keen vision and long-term, broad-perspective thinking has merit.

Now, if only for the fun of it, here are a few words in favor of the armadillo. In recent decades both Hollywood and the aerospace industry have given this creature nods. Google “Armageddon Armadillo” and “Armadillo Aerospace” to see this animal’s rocky road to iconic status. While you’re at it, for a chuckle do an image search on the “pink fairy armadillo.” Now there’s a cute little armored critter for you!

Getting back to Goldin’s speech, we can look at today’s International Space Station and see the remarkable achievement of continual human presence in space. The day-to-day research and public-private partnerships Goldin envisioned in 1992 have come to fruition. But, in a quest for clever analogies, we could also look at the hardworking occupants of the ISS as they tunnel through the station’s interior, or scurry about the exterior wearing protective layers. We can observe them busily engaged in domicile maintenance and resupply missions. Do they seem more like eagles or armadillos?

Farewell to Charles Bolden: NASA Administrator

He saw me! Administrator Bolden noticed me!

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden speaking at the Newseum in 2015, flanked by a model of the Hubble Space Telescope, Image Credit: Jake Christensen

Okay, I was a bit star struck. The above encounter involved me shuffling along the front of the stage in jeans and a NASA t-shirt as Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, looked over his speech prior to a televised press conference. The encounter took place shortly before a 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope, held at the Newseum in downtown Washington D.C. I attended as part of a NASA Social.

Full disclosure: I passed in front of the small stage by myself. I am 6′ 1″, chubby, and had a big NASA “meatball” logo on my chest; the man had no choice but to notice me. Furthermore I was sheepish and failed to say hello or even nod. But still, for a moment, the leader of our nation’s space program took note of me.

That was April 23, 2015. On January 20th of this year, Bolden resigned as NASA’s Administrator. He will be missed at the helm.

Portrait of Charles Bolden, NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

From my perspective, Administrator Bolden oversaw an era of robotic space exploration that may be called a golden age. As an astronaut, he played a firsthand role in deploying and maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope. As Administrator he oversaw some of our greatest missions: Cassini (Saturn), Curiosity (Mars), and New Horizons (Pluto). My “golden age” assertion comes by way of the incredible joy and sense of adventure I have experienced as a space enthusiast in recent years.

In honor of Major General Bolden, here are a couple of quotes from an address he gave in 2012 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Notwithstanding his own considerable accomplishments at NASA and in the Marines, Bolden expressed awe standing at the same podium once used by Dr. King. Bolden’s profound remarks note a unity of purpose while contrasting King’s non-violent work with his own military service. The full speech, only a few pages, is well worth the read:

Charles F. Bolden’s Remarks, 44th Annual MLK Commerative Service

“Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. … We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

—Martin Luther King, 1964, quoted by Charles Bolden

“I am proud to serve a President and a country that have given NASA the mandate and the resources to honor Dr. King’s dream by reaching new heights and revealing the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

—Charles Bolden

Here is a previous post about Administrator Bolden’s Senate Confirmation remarks:

Crisis, Thy Name is Muse

NASA: Previewing and Pioneering

For people interested and/or concerned with NASA’s future under President-elect Donald Trump, I point you to two sources I respect and find enlightening.

  1. As a member of The Planetary Society, I enjoy regular blogging and podcast content from Director of Advocacy Casey Dreier. Monitoring the political landscape is his job. Here’s Casey’s preview perspective: NASA Under Trump.
  2. For another take, I recommend space blogger Heather Archuletta, aka Pillownaut. When it comes to space blogging you could say Pillownaut is one of my mentors. Her views are very well-informed, albeit less restrained. She is not bound by the non-partisan obligations Casey adheres to working for a non-profit organization. Here’s Pillownaut’s preview perspective: The Future of NASA?

In any case, Lit for Space is a vehicle for marrying my love of literature with my love of space exploration. If you want to interact with me regarding the current political fray, and many other topics, I can be found on Twitter: @childejake. Now on to the featured content of this post.

NASA and Pioneering

On the topic of guard changing, I went back to 2002. President George W. Bush had recently appointed Sean O’Keefe to head NASA. O’Keefe was a novel choice. Neither a veteran engineer nor a test pilot (like his successors), O’Keefe hailed from the world of public administration. His resume was nonetheless impressive, as NASA’s history page for him relates.

Sean O’Keefe, Image Credit NASA/Bill Ingalls

A few months back I read a copy of O’Keefe’s Senate confirmation hearing remarks and frankly found them underwhelming by way of being overly apologetic. See my above note on him being outside the traditional NASA mold. Last week I pulled down the address he gave at Syracuse University after about four months of being on the job. O’Keefe talks expansively and passionately about NASA’s future via the theme of pioneering. I highly recommend reading this address, available as a PDF:

Pioneering the Future

In terms of being literature, O’Keefe’s speech exemplifies how significant the word “pioneering” is for NASA. For starters, we have the Pioneer space missions. In particular, Pioneers 10 and 11, which literally pioneered regions of our solar system never before explored directly by humanity. They achieved the most basic and obvious manner of pioneering, travelling farther out than anyone has before.

What I appreciate most about O’Keefe’s remarks is his use of pioneering in ways that transcend mere physical distance. Consider the title, a direct reference to pioneering forward through time. Elsewhere in his speech, he references deep space observations by telescopes like Hubble. Telescopic observation counts as pioneering the past, because the further a telescope sees, the older is the light reaching its lense.

Lastly, and so importantly for NASA’s heritage, O’Keefe relates NASA’s pioneering efforts on–and pointed at–planet Earth. NASA pioneers technology directly benefiting us on the ground. NASA points some of its on-orbit technology back at our planet to observe the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land. Everyone from farmers to people worried about mosquito-borne diseases benefits. See his remarks on page 6 under the heading “To understand and protect our home planet.”

O’Keefe’s remarks run to 14 pages. If you only read a chunk, read page 4 where he imagines life on Earth in 2030. He envisions all that America’s space program has achieved. Here is one excerpt which speaks to an aspect of Earth observation many of us hope remains a NASA priority under President-elect Trump’s administration. Imagining the year 2030, as pioneered in part by NASA research, Administrator O’Keefe said this:

“We understand our home: NASA’s missions revealed the complex interactions among the Earth’s major systems, vastly improving weather, climate, earthquake, and volcanic eruption forecasting – and the impact that our Sun has on our living world.”

Sans serif shuttle font and Sally

Shuttle Challenger
Image Credit: NASA

Or is it serif shuttle font? Help me out, good reader. First, find the number seven in the above image. Hint, the space shuttle is making the numeral.

There is at least one other image from the STS-7 mission out there where you can see the Challenger’s Canadarm forming the number seven. The STS-7 crew, like any self-respecting artists, chose to autograph their work. And I’m going to say it’s a serif font, because the End effector, or hand portion of the Canadarm, provides a flourish on the 7’s tip. This is literature formed by the most famous robot arm to fly in space!

The late Dr. Sally Ride recounts this numerical photo exploit–apparently done without the foreknowledge of mission control–in an interview she gave to the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in 2002. I stumbled onto the interview yesterday and highly recommend reading the whole thing. The back and forth between Sally and interviewer Rebecca Wright is quite conversational and very accessible to non-scientists like me.

Interview with Dr. Sally Ride

I was overdue to spend an afternoon with Dr. Ride, if only through her legacy and her words. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the interview. Sally describes her role in the launch of the shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission, which made her the first American woman to go into space:

“One of the first things that I was supposed to do—seven seconds after ignition—was, once the Shuttle started to roll, to say, “Roll program.” I’ll guarantee that those were the hardest words I ever had to get out of my mouth. It’s not easy to speak seven seconds after launch.”

Following two shuttle missions, Dr. Ride embarked on a career in academia. She taught physics at the University of California, San Diego. She also became a prolific writer, co-authoring several books. Those wanting to learn more about her contributions to science and literature should visit the Sally Ride Science website.

Image Credit: Sally Ride Science

From NASA’s website: “This image shows Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, who was also part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Ride led the Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students (MoonKAM) project, which allowed students nationwide to target lunar images to be taken by Ebb and Flow, the two GRAIL spacecraft.”

Voyager Mission as a Teaching Prospect

“We step out of our Solar System into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate.”

—Kurt Waldheim, United Nations secretary-general (1972 to 1981), quoted by Jim Bell in The Interstellar Age

An artist’s conception of the Voyager 1 spacecraft reaching interstellar space. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science on a Theme of Heroism

“There is a herolike narrative in science that, perhaps surprisingly, is not that far from a sports narrative.”

–Marcelo Gleiser, 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog

The above quote comes from a wonderful Olympics-themed post from the excellent science blog 13.7. I recommend stopping here, clicking the link above, and reading Dr. Gleiser’s post instead of mine. I am more interested in how it addresses the notion of heroic narrative than in its sports analogy. No bother. The analogy proves meaningful and the blog post brings light to the realities, sometimes heroic and sometimes self-serving, of scientific culture.

Heroic Photobomb Anyone?
Trojan asteroid 3540 Protesilaos photobombs distant galaxy Messier 74 in this infrared image (actually multiple frames combined) taken with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Years ago I wrote a caption for a similar Hubble image which appeared in The Planetary Report. In both cases, an effort to image far-away galaxies resulted in inadvertently imaging closer-up asteroids. I can’t help but find humor in this astronomical phenomena.

One other note, the person who introduced me to Trojan asteroids was science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who featured them in his novel The Hammer of God. These potentially harmful rocks orbit the sun in the same path as Jupiter. They follow this path ahead of or behind the gas giant. If you are unaware of the underlying reason NASA has invested in missions to asteroids, I recommend reading Clarke’s heroic novel.

Kepler and the Dancing Planets

“He struggled through the rough emotional seas that creative minds must navigate—first up, then down, first elation, then depression. And yet he loved it so. He was, after all, a man who rummaged for God in the balances of his own mind. For him, the geometry of the heavens, the dances of the planets, the secrets of the universe were more real than the twists of human politics, for the first was complete with mystical joy, while the second was full of fear.”

—James A. Connor, Kepler’s Witch

An artist’s conception of the Kepler-11 System, a group of planets orbiting a distant star. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, named after early 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler, detected the system. Image credit: NASA, Tim Pyle