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

Space Evangelism: Three Tales

The following is a re-post of a piece I wrote back in 2009 on my other blog.

Vignette One: My Good Neighbor

As Judy took the magazine from my hands, she looked at the glossy photos and faltered a little. She found the images unsettling, verging on overwhelming. Judy sat down, took a breath while shaking her head, and then said, “Boy. This…” Her voice cut out. She wasn’t about to faint or cry; however, the photos I’d placed before her were having a disconcerting effect. What were these photos of? Stars, galaxies, and nebulae, all taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

For space enthusiasts, Hubble’s photos are generally inspiring. So I was taken aback to watch my neighbor regard them as upsetting, even a bit disturbing. In hindsight though, I wonder why I presupposed that a galaxy mosaic would surely produce an uplifting response.

For Judy, life has included steady doses of struggle, tragedy, and poor health, underscored by recently being laid off from a factory job. Why did I assume she would enjoy pictures of an impersonal universe where everything is frozen, burning, or subsisting perilously between these extremes? In case you are wondering, I never got around to plugging Mars Direct.

Vignette Two: My Astute Acquaintance

I’ve known Jim for roughly three years. He is a practical man of the earth. Though quite successful in his dual career as an actor and tree care specialist, Jim is neither rich nor famous. He is, however, well read, sharp-witted, and he has no tolerance for arguments that smack of bull crap or wishful thinking.

On July 4th, I found myself visiting with Jim at a cookout. After some enjoyable discussion of Ernest Hemmingway’s short stories, Jim asked what I’d been reading lately. At the time, I was halfway through Buzz Aldrin’s new memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

Jim decided to quiz me on the merits of human space travel. Given the incredible expense involved, why did I think human space flight was a justified use of tax dollars? I opted to try selling Jim on the idea of building an observatory on the far side of the moon. This merited a slight nod, but I could tell I hadn’t won him over to pursuing human space settlements.

I retreated to the only program that has always made complete sense to me. “We need to develop and test spacecraft that can reach objects crossing Earth’s orbit. And we need to be capable of altering their orbits to avoid collision and disaster. Long term, a Moon or Mars base could be an excellent jumping off point for such missions.”

Jim began nodding in sincere affirmation. “Now that makes sense to me, Jake. I can see the benefits of doing that.” I’d gotten him onboard, but the conversation was a bummer for me. I hate relying on apocalyptic argument to make my point. Still, if it gets the door open…

Vignette Three: My Wonderful Nephew

Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited family in Kentucky. One of my relatives is an inquisitive four-year-old nephew: Hayden. Ever curious, Hayden’s favorite question is “Why?” Recently, Hayden and his mom enjoyed a picture book about space. Sensing a chance to foster some uncle/nephew bonding, my sister told Hayden that I like space. Thus prompted, Hayden asked me a question. “Uncle Jake, what’s your favorite planet?”

“My favorite planet is Saturn,” I replied. From his mom’s lap, Hayden sat sideways, furrowed his brow, and fired off his favorite question. “Why?” I had to think. What fact might interest a four-year old? Turning to my nephew, I asked, “Hayden, how many moons does Earth have?” He looked down at his little fingers for help, but fell quiet and uncertain. With a little help from his mom, Hayden answered. “One.”

“Well Hayden,” I continued, “Saturn has lots of moons. Some are icy. Some are rocky. Some are big and some are small. But they are all really neat!” Hayden’s young attention span soon left me behind, but for a moment I believe I had him. Hopefully, I nurtured a seed of curiosity that will keep him fascinated with space as he grows up.

Master Poet: “at ease in the never-ending”

“My father spent whole seasons / Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find. / His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise / As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending / Night of space.”

–Tracy K. Smith, excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

The Hubble Space Telescope, the oracle-eye of Tracy K. Smith’s poem, pictured here by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009. Image Credit: NASA

The Mormon theology on which I was raised proffered a binary existence: a temporal realm and a spiritual realm, separated by a literal veil. It takes a prophetic eye to see from the temporal into the spiritual. Yet it takes a master writer’s ability to make the resulting vision, with its vast scales and darkly shrouded mysteries, meaningful to readers.

Poet Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” originally published in the collection Life on Mars, revels in a similar sort of binary cosmology. Her poem moves back and forth, to and from the realms of science fiction and science reality. In some of the most vivid stanzas, we see the universe through the artful eyes of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Yet the oracle-eye referenced in the above quote is the non-fictional Hubble Space Telescope. Smith’s father spent a great portion of his engineering career bringing Hubble into operation.

I encourage you to read Smith’s poem, available in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website:

My God, It’s Full of Stars

Did you read it? If not, pretty please do. If you did read it, please go back and read it again. Smith’s poem is a classic example of verse that must be read more than once for the fullest appreciation. Reading it only once may leave a casual reader with the mistaken impression the poem is a blur of jumbled images and unresolved themes—a bit like early Hubble images. Repeat readings bring into focus the poem’s excellent craftsmanship and profound implications.

Smith’s poem treats readers to bursts of alliteration and internal rhyme. Gruff mood swings, giving off an odd smoky charm, give way to erotic lyricism (tasteful mind you) with its obvious appeal. The push of patriarchy vies with the pull of matriarchy, both flanking the poem’s cinematic core. Yet the sci-fi world of 2001: A Space Odyssey finds a parallel in the workaday reality of Kubrik’s moviemaking.

If something catches your eye once in this poem, scan around and you will likely find its compliment in another stanza. For instance, the quote I started this post with is the second time the word “bowing” appears in the poem. Find the other use of bowing and revel in the age-old tableau of a single human wondering at the mysterious night sky, juxtaposed with the possibility of many more beings on distant worlds doing the same thing.

Questions for Comment

What images or phrases from the poem grabbed your attention? Why?

Poignant “Astronomy Lesson” for Boys

“The boys edge closer, shoulder
to shoulder now, sad Ptolemies,
the older looking up, the younger
as he thinks back straight ahead
into the black leaves of the maple
where the street lights flicker
like another watery skein of stars.”

Alan R. Shapiro, excerpt from “Astronomy Lesson”

The long goodbye
Product of a dying star, planetary nebula NGC 6565 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Matej Novak

Long ago, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy* asserted our Earth sits at the center of a cosmic sphere. He was brilliant but he was wrong. Despite Ptolemy’s considerable scholastic accomplishments, today he is generally regarded as the guy who led humanity down a cosmological path that dead-ended in the Dark Ages. So when the poet Alan Shapiro seeks to underscore the plight of two boys, exiled to the porch while their parents’ dysfunctional marriage plays out inside the house, he amplifies the adjective “sad” by attaching it to the name Ptolemy.

I strongly recommend Mr. Shapiro’s wonderfully poignant poem, “Astronomy Lesson.” You can read the poem for free at the Poetry Foundation website:

Astronomy Lesson

This poem artfully expresses the vast scales of time, space, and history, without leaving a front porch on a single evening. Shapiro infuses the poem’s psychology with astronomy; however, boyhood angst lies at the core of the verse. The older boy copes with his parents mutual animosity by ruminating on the starry sky and all it holds, from solar winds to dying stars. He shares his scientific knowledge with the younger boy, whose thoughts are simpler but equally reminiscent of outer space.

Another of the poet’s tools is juxtaposition. As you read “Astronomy Lesson,” pay attention to what lies near and what lies far, also what is up and what is back. Never fail to note where light casts itself in relation to darkness. Lastly, never underestimate how powerful are the thoughts of boys passing time on a porch.

“Children of Dalton MC Leod. Fuquay Springs, North Carolina. Sept. 17, 1935,” by Arthur Rothstein, NYPL

*For my thumbnail sketch of Ptolemy, I refreshed my understanding of his career by using the Encyclopedia Britannica App for iPad. The above Rothstein photograph of boys on a porch is evocative of, but unrelated to, Shapiro’s poem.

Massimino’s “Spaceman” is all Human

Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the UniverseSpaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increases in strength from things that didn’t kill them. And all the while they just keep being likeable. What’s a devout pessimist like me to do?

For me, the answer was to preview astronaut Mike Massimino’s soon-to-be released book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” Talk about likeable optimist! As astronauts go, “Mass” is an all-star. He flew on two shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He also excels at popularizing science and engineering, in part through appearing as himself on the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite my affinity for pessimism, Massimino’s “Spaceman” won me over. He tends to do that to people.

I’ll spin it with this analogy: Mike Massimino is to Twitter as Neil Armstrong is to the moon. Through social networking and undeniable likability—in addition to intelligence, courage, and hard work—Massimino has fueled popular support for space exploration like few others. His book “Spaceman” tells the story of how he rose from a normal childhood to an extraordinary career within the tightknit yet super-competitive corps of NASA astronauts.

An unabashed fan of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” Massimino draws on those films to craft a thrilling prologue describing his first launch into space. Yet this book rewards readers with more than just high-flying thrills. Throughout “Spaceman,” Massimino incorporates elements of history, politics, culture, and human nature to craft a fascinating and engrossing narrative. The result is a complete and balanced picture of his journey, often humorous, in the tradition of good old-fashioned page-turners.

Speaking candidly, like Massimino often does, the most thrilling passages for me involved the author’s struggles to pass NASA’s eye exam. NASA rejected Massimino three times before he finally made it into the astronaut program. Similar to watching “Apollo 13,” I found myself tense up witnessing just how close Massimino came to being rejected by NASA (a fourth and final time). As a pessimist, I often fret about how obsessed we humans are with stories fixated on simple If questions. With Massimino’s thought-provoking adventure, I am heartened to observe a publisher—and soon readers—embrace a story focused on the richer questions of Why and How.

As I read how Massimino overcame his ocular limitations, I noticed a parallel with Hubble Space Telescope’s own visual impairment. Both suffered from flawed lenses. Frankly, Hubble and Massimino had every right to fail. Yet they both succeeded. Delicately orchestrated planning combined with dogged effort enabled both the man and the machine to overcome their initial sight defects.

The word “human” shows up often in “Spaceman.” Attributing this to a writer in need of a thesaurus would be a mistake. As Massimino worked his way through the academic ranks of engineers, he labored in a specialized topic called “human factors.” I’ll let the man holding a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering explain it. “Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you.”

“Spaceman” succeeds because of Massimino’s keen sense of human factors. The result is a book capable of satisfying a wide range of readers in addition to space enthusiasts like myself. In a conversational manner, “Spaceman” relates the remarkable journey of an eager kid from Long Island who made it all the way to 350 miles above the Earth’s surface. There he repaired arguably the most important science instrument ever built. The risks, the costs, the times NASA came up tragically short, are discussed with candor. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism steeped in gratitude and faith for human potential.

I strongly recommend “Spaceman” by Mike Massimino for optimists, pessimists, and of course, for all the starry-eyed young men and women who currently dream of Mars. Explorers like Massimino remind us how fantastic an adventure life can be, no matter how unlikely success may seem.

DISCLAIMER: Jake received a complimentary advance “Uncorrected Proof” copy of “Spaceman” from Crown Publishers.

View all my reviews

Hubble graces Lit for Space banner

Recently I created a new banner image to head the Lit for Space blog. I selected two images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope gallery. After playing in Photoshop, adding a gradient homage to the astronomical phenomena of red shift and blue shift, I posted the above banner. Here are Hubble’s contributions.

Hubble image of galaxy NGC 6814
A spiral snowflake
Read a NASA/ESA Image Feature post
Hubble image of dwarf galaxy Leo A
A case of suspended animation?
Read a NASA/ESA Image Feature post

For both images, here is the credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt

Jupiter: a king crowned with auroras

“Even across the 400 million miles of empty space the planet projects its grandeur. An enormous world, hanging in the interplanetary sunlight. King of the universe.”

–Michael Byers, Percival’s Planet

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester).
For more information about this image and Jupiter’s auroras, read NASA’s full story.