Recommended: Science Fact Clichés


Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché


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, 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?

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.”

Let there be Law, saith the Universe

The things we can do because Isaac Newton figured out gravity for us. This graphic depicts the 155-orbit Solstice Mission of the Cassini spacecraft. This multi-year mission has avoided crashing into Saturn, any of its moons, or accidentally hurtling aimlessly into deep space because we can measure and utilize gravity. Image Credit: NASA JPL/Caltech

Right now scientists are spending lots of time and money looking for a “Planet X.” Unseen, possibly non-existent, its presence is being mathematically inferred by researchers thirsty for discovery. The reason their search is not ridiculous is that it has been done before. And it worked!

The planet Neptune was discovered sans telescope. Researchers in 1846 used math coupled with the best observations of known planets at the time. They discovered Neptune by detecting its gravitational influence on planets they could see. I’m reading up on this for use in my creative writing. My chosen book is The Planet Neptune: An Exposition and History, by John Pringle Nichol. (Yes, I’m suddenly thinking about potato chips too.)

“The unity of this great Universe is unbroken; it is the appointed theatre of uninterrupted law: and the power to follow that law through the Heavens, and to discern by its aid the inter-dependence of their most varied and gorgeous phenomena, was the legacy bequeathed to human genius and perseverance by him who, in this sense, has never yet been approached–our own immortal Newton.”

–J.P. Nichol, The Planet Neptune, Part First, Picture of the Solar System

In the first part of Nichol’s book, the rhetoric comes lofty from his pen. I enjoyed sampling his 1847 perspective, more closely tuned to our present-day view than I might have assumed. He speaks of a universe in which the gravity of everything, even a single pebble, affects the gravity of everything else. Had the phrase butterfly effect been in the lexicon at that time, I suspect Nichol would have given that meteorological notion a nod for gravity’s sake.

Nichol revels in the unity, harmony, and especially the complexity of the cosmos, which math and astronomy make decipherable. In describing the apparent oscillation of stars, he all but introduces exoplanet research (which is all the rage today for discovery-thirsty scientists and science journalists). His ultimate refrain, summed up in the above quote, is to praise the virtue of “august Law” at work in the Heavens. Lofty indeed!

Questions for Comment

When expressing your sense of the universe and its movements, what words come to mind? Why are you drawn to these words?

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.

Voyaging through ‘The Interstellar Age’

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager MissionThe Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.

The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.

To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.

Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.

“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”

Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun.

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