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.”

Our Obligation to the Possible

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In 2005, Michael D. Griffin, in his Senate confirmation hearing to become NASA Administrator, all but said, We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.

Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard
April 27, 2005, Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. NASA’s 11th administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

Dr. Griffin appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee a little over two years after the Shuttle Columbia disaster. His remarks make clear he and President George W. Bush saw themselves as presiding over the end of the Shuttle program, the ongoing “Space Station Era”, and the beginning of a new era of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Click here for a PDF of Dr. Griffin’s complete Statement

From a structural standpoint, Griffin’s remarks reminded me of a strategy touted in presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s book On Speaking Well. She says colloquially, “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em—tell ‘em—then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” (pg. 24, paperback edition).

What is the essence of Michael D. Griffin’s message to ‘em, ‘em being the Senate Commerce Committee?

“The strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

This is plain and simple enough. But with what literary oomph does Griffin drive his message? First, he invokes Columbus, 1492, and the political backing provided by Isabella, Queen of Aragon. Griffin’s remarks are not a tired tribute to a historical figure who has largely fallen out of favor. He uses Columbus’s voyage, and more particularly Isabella’s role in it, to demonstrate a politically savvy justification for engaging in exploration.

Why did Columbus secure funding? Because the Queen recognized the inevitability of Columbus’s mission and wanted to make sure Spain, not some other country, lead the way and took the credit.

I return to my phony quote from the top. “We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.”

Griffin’s remarks are laced with word choices that infuse a sense of achieving the possible in the context of what is inevitable and/or necessary. He speaks, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, of flying the Shuttle “as safely as possible…” He speaks of developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle “as soon as possible…” He announces “a lunar return program having the maximum possible utility…” And when he invokes Spain’s backing of Columbus, he speaks of that 15th Century effort as being “at the edge of what was technologically possible.”

Yet Griffin’s remarks strike me less as anthemic and, in word choice and subtext, more as steeped in a sense of obligation. His speech starts with a list of priorities to execute “the duties” of the office of NASA Administrator. He speaks of the completion of the Space Station as a matter of international “commitments.” Most explicitly, right after concluding his colonial history lesson, he says the following:

“In the twenty-first century and beyond, for America to continue to be preeminent among nations, it is necessary for us also to be the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

To a Republican administration in 2005 at least, exploration of the Moon and beyond may have seemed as inevitable as the European colonization of the Americas. There is even, perhaps intentionally, a little nod to Queen Isabella late in the speech. Griffin speaks of NASA’s science programs as being “crown jewels of the nation’s achievements.” A page earlier in the speech he spoke of the story of Queen Isabella “pledging her jewels to back the voyage” of Columbus.

These brief references to jewels, literal and metaphoric, are the most romantic Griffin’s statement gets. As he makes clear in his closing remarks, the nation’s exploration of space was not in jeopardy in 2005. Only at stake was its commitment to remaining on the edge of possibility, leading the way deeper into space than any other nation. For some, this obligation to the possible—for the sake of political supremacy—is reason enough to resume exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Crisis, Thy Name is Muse

There will be grave consequences if you do not read this blog post in its entirety.

Actually there may not be any consequences at all. But I am thinking about the question of how a speaker creates a sense of urgency in his audience. How does he or she make the listener truly listen? And once he has his audience’s full attention, how does he persuade them to change their thinking, or to act on his entreaties?

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

For NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who on July 8, 2009 addressed a Senate Committee which would decide if he could become NASA’s Administrator, the writer’s strategy involved invoking a sense of crisis. Here is a link to PDF copy of Bolden’s speech:

Statement of Charles Bolden
Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
July 8, 2009

After acknowledgments and a brief personal history of how Bolden broke through racial barriers to secure a career as an officer in the Marine Corps, he uses the word “crises” for the first time in his speech. He does so speaking of missions in which soldiers in his charge provided humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa. Later from a speeding perch in Low Earth Orbit, he witnessed environmental crisis in the Amazon Rain Forest. He also reflects on civil rights crises and anti-war strife in the 1960s.

Next he quotes Dr. Shirley Jackson of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who speaks of “…a quiet crisis building in the United States—a crisis that could jeopardize the nation’s pre-eminence and well-being.” Bolden quotes an entire paragraph of Jackson’s remarks in which she uses the word crisis four times. The crisis involves a disparity between the demand for trained scientists and engineers and the inadequate rate at which the United States generates them.

After listing four challenges the nation must confront, Bolden returns to the word crisis. “Today we face a crisis of opportunity.” Yet, this is also the final time Bolden invokes this dissembling term before the Senate Committee charged with confirming or denying his appointment to oversee NASA. For by this point, Bolden has begun using a term he favors for the remainder of his remarks: challenge.

Where crisis comes in the form of threatening developments—violence and suffering in particular—challenge binds itself more likably to the notion of opportunity. A speech that focused its thesis initially around a solidly negative idea, now transforms itself into something motivational.

“Today we face a crisis of opportunity. We can either confront the aforementioned challenges of technological leadership that ensure our nation’s safety and security or cede that leadership and prestige to other nations. I ask each of you to help NASA turn these challenges into opportunities.” —Charles Bolden

From here to the end of his remarks, Bolden weaves the notion of worthy challenges into the ongoing and well-established aerospace efforts of NASA. All of these Bolden frames within well-worn nationalism and a desire to keep our country exceptional. A speech that early on grounds itself in the imagery of crisis ends in a call to meet challenges which NASA was founded to overcome.