Air Date: Week of December 10, 1999
NASA’s Mars lander may have failed; but as poet Christine Hemp explains, there are other, more literary, ways to get our message into space.
CURWOOD: The repeated failures of NASA's Mars probes have prompted some grumblings from those who say outer space explorations waste time and money. But others insist contact with extraterrestrial life is possible, perhaps through something as simple as a poem. As Christine Hemp explains, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to send a poem into space. But it doesn't hurt to know one, especially one who's building NASA's sub-millimeter wave astronomy satellite.
HEMP: When my friend Gary Melnick, who is an astronomer at Harvard's Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, casually said he'd received a grant from NASA, I said, "Great! How much?" remembering the thousand dollar poetry grant I'd received that year. He replied, "Thirty-three million dollars."
Gary was building a satellite to monitor the prenatal activity of stars. The Hubble telescope has given us pictures of stars long past puberty, but Gary's instrument is to tell us what happens before they're twinkling. A kind of stellar ultrasound.
Given that metaphorical mission, Gary suggested that a poem of mine should be part of the project. It took six years to build the satellite; then, scheduling problems at NASA delayed things another four. I'd virtually forgotten about it until last year, when Gary called and said, "The launch is next month."
So I wrote the poem, and sent it to Gary, who took it to Goddard Space Flight Center near DC, where it was transferred to foil to protect it from heat, then stowed deep inside the satellite's observatory.
On December second, 1998, at Vandenburg Air Force Base in southern California, we watched a Lockheed jet carry our Pegasus rocket, which contained the satellite, into the sky to be dropped and ignited in mid-air. I sat at the control center, among astronomers, scientists, and engineers, tracking the satellite's progress via remote camera.
At five minutes before the drop, we heard a scratchy voice through the headphones. "Abort! Abort!" I looked at Gary's stricken face. For a moment, I imagined something was wrong with the poem. NASA officials saying, "This line doesn't scan. Bring her back." But the glitch turned out to be a software problem, and the satellite was forced to come down.
Over the next couple days, the launch was attempted twice more, until finally we heard the voice say, "Drop," and the rocket ignited, filling the control screens with white light. I raced downstairs and outside. Sure enough, streaking across the shimmery sky, the satellite glinted pink in the setting sun, its contrails sweeping behind it. Booster rockets exploding.
We screamed and waved our arms, following the vessel with our eyes. Up, up, up. And then, it was gone, leaving a squiggly white line in its wake. Its own poem in the sky. Now, a year later, I get e-mails from Gary, telling me how many million miles the satellite has traveled. In the last one, he wrote, "The observatory with the poem for its heart is starting to teach us how stars are born."
This is how my poem, entitled "Connecting Cord," begins:
(Music up and under)
HEMP: When a child is waiting to be born,
Light shines inside.
No one but the mother knows what trembles there.
She's the blanket, the safe cloud,
Hiding her pinpoint of glittery possibility.
CURWOOD: Christine Hemp lives in Port Townsend, Washington. You can hear her poem, "Connecting Cord," on our website at www.loe.org. Her commentary comes to us from producer Jay Allison's ongoing series, "Life Stories."
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