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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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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Foundation and Closed Priesthood

foundation-asimov-bible

There are books that itch inside your mind and say, “It’s time! Read me again.” For me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of them. So I recently gave it a second read. I’m in awe of its depth of thought and its continued, if not increased, relevance today. I highly recommend this book.

I do not suggest Foundation as a light and fun read. You must show up. You must give it your full attention. You will be rewarded.

Perhaps the ingredient in Foundation which I find most interesting is the notion of science as a closed priesthood. Quite literally, scientists as a group who derive power and authority from their vocation, but who remain highly exclusive, mysterious, and suspect to non-scientists. Their work takes on the air of magic–attractive to some and fearful to others–by virtue of being well-guarded, specialized, and difficult for laymen to comprehend.

In his book Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Carl Sagan has these cautionary words to say about closed priesthood:

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”

I’ll leave you to think about this issue. But I suggest the topic is both fascinating and critically deserving of our consideration. One of the best ways to consider science as a closed priesthood, for good and ill, is to read Asimov’s masterwork.

To read an earlier review I wrote of Foundation, visit Goodreads.

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.

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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.

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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?

Star Wars and the Devoutly Lukewarm Empire’s End

Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.

Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.

Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?

The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.

Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.

One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.

Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.

This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?

I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel.

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Farewell to Charles Bolden: NASA Administrator

He saw me! Administrator Bolden noticed me!

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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

‘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.