My Poetic Detour

Hello Reader,

Having scaled back my rate of posting, I invite you to hop over to my other blog for the reason why. Many Lit for Space posts focus on the intersection of poetry and space exploration. Recently I’ve been going all the way into poetry, learning more about form and style with a delightful book called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. The exercises in this book are happily taking up much of my reading and writing time.

For more on this book, read the following post: Poetry Drills with Stephen Fry … oh my.

And to look at the galactically poetic ground we’ve covered so far on this blog, skim through the Poetry tag! Hope your 2017 has started well, readers!

‘Hidden Figures’ reach the silver screen

For those of us always craving the next Apollo 13, The Martian, or The Right Stuff, January of 2017 brings us Hidden Figures. This historical drama (with heartfelt comedy and thrilling action mixed in) tells the story of women who helped NASA send humans into space. Here is the official trailer:

Though Hidden Figures begs comparisons like the ones I made above, as I watched it I kept thinking of The Three Musketeers. This isn’t a swashbuckling action film. The lead characters wield math and management skills in lieu of rapiers. Nevertheless, Hidden Figures depicts a heroic trio navigating the realms of power, intrigue, and ambition.

Actors Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe depict three of the African American women who broke through race and gender barriers during the early days of NASA. They do so as walking, talking, calculating computers. Like the Three Musketeers, and many of the actors who’ve portrayed them, they bring confidence, gravitas, and zeal to their excellent performances. At the end of the opening weekend matinee I attended, people clapped (including me).

Hidden Figures safely earns a family-friendly PG rating, but manages to bring all the intensity of the subject material. It does so via tasteful, briskly-paced storytelling whose ultimate feel is inspirational. I highly recommend seeing this film.

Planet as Protagonist in ‘Mars Crossing’

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

View all my reviews

D.H. Lawrence and Sexy Luna’s Power

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The moon as photographed by Astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station, Image Credit: NASA (image inverted for this blog post)

“And who has seen the moon, who has not seen / Her rise from out the chamber of the deep, / Flushed and grand and naked…” –D.H. Lawrence, Moonrise

At first blush, the poem Moonrise seems to be about nothing more than likening the moon to a naked woman, glowing with post-coital bliss.

Here. See for yourself. It’s a short and vivid poem:

Moonrise

The merits of my bawdy first impression of Moonrise stand reinforced by sampling another sensual lunar poem by Mr. Lawrence: Moon New-Risen. In that poem, Lawrence envisions the feminine moon making out with a masculine night sky. His fixation seems akin to a boy gazing at a nudie magazine. So why am I reading and blogging about his naughty poetry on Lit for Space? I blame Captain Kirk.

“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains / the hottest blood of all…”

Captain Kirk quotes this bit of D.H. Lawrence’s poem Whales Weep Not! during Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It’s a beautiful line and beautifully placed in the film. Kirk recites it to a lovely woman, though we should note she is also a heroic scientist to whom Kirk is indebted. Together they gaze at a pair of rescued humpback whales swimming through velvety lighting aboard a starship.

Kirk recites only the first line of “Whales Weep Not!” Wisely so. The rest of the poem ranges from highly sensual to downright erotic. It contains, among other things, a detailed depiction of whale genitalia fulfilling its biological function. Unabashedly, the poem goes all the way.

What does this have to do with Moonrise?

Without Star Trek IV’s well-placed D.H. Lawrence reference, I may never have happened upon Moonrise. I found it buried in a thick anthology of D.H. Lawrence’s Complete Poems. Thank you public libraries and interlibrary loan.

Humor me and read Moonrise again, especially if—like me—you could only see sex the first time you read it. Moonrise, like Whales Weep Not! is about much more than sex. Though it is a poem which employs sexuality powerfully and without apology. By a third reading, I caught hold of its climactic message.

The rising moon’s gorgeousness catapults both poet and reader toward a powerful notion. Within human passion, sparked by cosmic beauty, there is some quality which may hope to outlast even the literal moon’s existence. What a wonderfully defiant sentiment for a species utterly bound by time and space.

Questions for Comment

In what ways do you, or do you not, find the moon poetic? What elements of the cosmos do you find sensual, and why?

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.

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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.”

A Star Wars Sonnet Before Rogue One

star-wars-heroine-art

Methought I cast upon the heroine

Methought I cast upon the heroine
   Myself as light, like Jedi from the grave,
   Whom Force to orphaned princess power gave,
   And made her mortal heir of lustered jinn.
Hers, as one unseduced by Sith Lord kin,
   Pined peacefully in Alderaan’s enclave;
   Then verged her brow as blasted heart ash, save
   A smuggler Yavin-bound her gaze did win.
I, limelight, incandesced before the want
   Of martyred swains, as photons sought her face.
   Dame’s valiant mien, no Tarkin star could daunt,
Became the storied visage artists trace.
   Yet when her irises I dared to haunt,
   She blinked, I glanced, and faded from her grace.

Poet’s Notes for the Curious:

The above poem is an homage and adaptation of John Milton’s classic sonnet, Methought I saw my late espoused saint. I set out to do a poem exploring the nature of heroines in Star Wars, but when I decided to adapt Milton’s verse, I sank contentedly into portraying boyish unrequited love. Hopefully other fan poets caught up in the spirit of Rogue One will pen rich celebrations for the growing ranks of leading Star Wars heroines.

Please check out last year’s poem and image:

Elegy for a Country Space Opera

By way of credit, the above Photoshop creation draws on three pictures I licensed from istockphoto.com: a gent portrait from Pali Rao; a lady portrait from photoaliona; and a starfield image by Natalia_80. I also used a NASA image of Saturn’s moon Mimas, rightly dubbed the “Death Star” moon.

Sans serif shuttle font and Sally

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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.

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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.”