On the Occasion of Commander Hadfield’s Return to Earth

I have written elsewhere about my inspiration as a youngster watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon, the same event that put another young Canadian boy on the road to command of the ISS.  I have written elsewhere about the writings of Carl Sagan leading me to the great Irish mystic poet Yeats.  I have written elsewhere about how obvious it seems to me that science and art are fundamentally the same thing, that both inspire and move us, the both change us and our world and, perhaps most importantly, both science and art, and all the wonder they stir in us, are accessible to all of us.  I have always known this to be true.  I have always seen supporting Science and supporting the Arts as obvious obligations of individuals and society. But I am very aware that many friends and acquaintances have never been able to see through those lenses.

Over the last five months I’ve often thought of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance in which art comes to a space station as dance. And, of course, I’ve thought of the paintings of astronaut Alan Bean and of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov.  While Bean and Leonov’s art is exquisite and inspiring, they painted after they came home. And the Robinsons so wonderfully imagine making art in space, but they never did it.  But, perhaps because they lacked the internet, these artists never caught the larger public’s attention.  They never joined, on a grand scale, science to ordinary people through art.

I realized tonight as Commander Hadfield’s new video of Space Oddity went viral, that this fairly  unassuming gentleman from Sarnia has done it.  He has shown ordinary people art and science meeting together  And the people get it!

Using social media and the biggest stage possible – the sky – Hadfield has had us watch him rapt for five months as he shape-shifted from rock star to zero-gravity chef to science teacher to science fiction character to military commander, and, finally, to a fifty something man with a crew-cut and moustache who actually pulls off a self-shot music video of his own acoustic cover of perhaps the most iconic Bowie song.  Whatever the flaws of adaptation or performance, Hadfield has capped his inspiring public Space Odyssey with a piece of art that captures the tension apparent in his earlier collaboration with Ed Robertson, the tension between the unknowable-to-most joy of looking down on Earth from a home in the sky and the universal human joy of standing at home on the Green Hills of Earth.  No longer the story of an ominous malfunction of Major Tom’s capsule which leaves the astronaut stranded, Hadfield’s revised Space Oddity is a bitter-sweet lament for the end of his stay on the Space Station and his final return to earth. He is facing an inversion of Bowie’s original conceit of the Marooned Astronaut  –  Hadfield knows that it is to Space, not to Earth, that he will never return. With this recording Hadfield has turned a once inconceivable  Space Oddity – a Canadian kid from Sarnia becoming the tweeting rock star commander of the International Space Station opening hailing frequencies to Captain Kirk – into an Odyssey of Space very true to the spirit of the Greek epic poem.  Although at last he stands on the shores of Ithaca, he can’t help but look longingly back at the Cosmic Ocean he has sailed.

Hadfield has put himself up there and made a point of making art with us and for us from that tin can he’s sitting in.  He makes us all feel like we’re there with him, doing science, looking down on our blue home, feeling wonder at the speed and the vastness.

And we can’t help but sing along.

Thank you, Commander Hadfield.

We can hear you, Major Tom!

Safe landing!

 

Update, May 14, 2014: Yesterday Commander Hadfield’s one year licence from Space Oddity‘s publishing company ran out, so the Space Oddity video was voluntarily taken down from YouTube.  Sad, in a way, I guess.  For those who missed it: you missed something pretty special. For those who saw and heard glitter space rock science fiction become science fact, you’ve been part of something special.  This morning Jian Ghomeshi gave us a fine audio essay on the vanishing of Hadfield’s Major Tom.

 

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A toast to the memory of Neil Armstrong

I’d like to toast the memory of a man by all reports of a most excellent brilliance which was, remarkably, surpassed by his shy humility.  A man who performed a feat beyond epic heroism.   For those too young to remember, in July, 1969, Neil Armstrong and two companions climbed into what was effectively a Volkswagen beetle augmented by a computer with slightly less processing power than your toaster.  Then he let some guy light up under him one of the bigger bombs humanity has ever created and flew that Beetle into space.  Then, a few days later, Armstrong and one of his companions climbed into a gangly arthopodish construction of tin foil packed full of yet more explosives.  Armstrong piloted that ridiculous craft to the surface of the moon and became the only person ever —ever — to set foot on a world never before trodden by humanity.  Until some woman or man treads the red dust of Mars or the charcoal of an asteroid, no one will ever do what Neil Armstrong did.  Then, Armstrong and his companion, Buzz Aldrin set off the rest of their explosives, rose into the lunar sky, and they and their third companion Michael Collins rode the tin can back to Earth in an almost quarter of a million mile free-fall.  Far faster than a speeding  bullet they crashed into the Earth’s atmosphere and plunged into the arms of the Pacific Ocean, completing a journey no hero of epic could have imagined in his (they’re almost always male, those epic heroes) wildest boastful dreams.

Neil Armstrong could have had anything in the world after becoming The First Man on the Moon.  But, like Cato the Elder, Armstrong retreated from public life.  Unlike Cato, Neil Armstrong only rarely made any attempt to steer public discourse.  He did not ever draw on the equity he had accrued with his inconceivable achievement.

I suspect that Neil Armstrong was very, very aware that he was carried to that step on the moon on the shoulders of thousands — even millions and perhaps billions –of fellow travellers

Tonight I am raising a small glass of my most expensive single-malt with friends  to the memory of a most extraordinary man of heroism and humility, Neil Armstrong, and to all those who threw that bit of tin foil to Tranquility Base.  Later I will quietly, by myself, raise a glass of my best single-malt to the dream Armstrong instilled in a whole generation, and in large parts of subsequent generations: the dream of ever exploring outward, of ever reaching farther than our momentary grasp, of always surprising even ourselves with the fact that, gosh, we did it!

A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”

And

“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?