Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ready for launch - a poem for Valentina Tereshkova #2


Ready for launch

The suit is working well.
The inflow stream is working well.
I’m ready for launch.
I feel excellent.
Everything is normal.
I’m not a delicate lady.
Everything is normal on board.
I’m ready for launch.
I’m taking up the initial position.
Feeling excellent.

Valentina Tereskova preparing for launch.
Image credit: @Sputnik

This is a poem made by selecting and rearranging words from a segment of conversation in the transcript of Valentina Tereshkova's epic orbit of the Earth in 1963. So in a way we are joint authors of this work. Note also the influence of Gertrude Stein.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fourth orbit: a poem for Valentina Tereshkova

Fourth orbit

19 hours 25 minutes
I sang songs for him
In the centre
such a blue spot.
Here now
the Sun
so orange, not red,
not light red, but
I’m also feeling excellent.
Here now
the Sun
visible and lit up
In the outer ring
the horizon is visible.
It’s a very beautiful sight
at first it’s light blue,
then lighter,
then dark…

Image courtesy of

This is a poem made by selecting and rearranging words from a paragraph in the transcript of Valentina Tereshkova's words during her epic orbit of the Earth in 1963.  It seemed to me that the poetry was already in there and only needed coaxing to bring out. I feel there's something a little Gertrude Stein-esque about it too.


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Sputnik 1 lives on in models of the world's first satellite

In 2017, I was lucky enough to be part of a UN workshop on the theme of women in space. Most of it was run at the offices of UN Women, but one session was in UN HQ in New York City.

I was delighted to see a model of Sputnik 1 suspended from the ceiling in the lobby. The model was presented to the UN by the USSR in 1959. 

The satellite itself of course no longer exists, having re-entered after three months in orbit in January 1958. I wonder what you would find if you made a catalogue of all the Sputnik models that existed in the world - a footprint of its cultural influence? The catalogue would include the model that usually resides on my office desk, for example. You'd never be able to track them all - there must be so many small ones produced as models or toys dispersed throughout the world. Some would be in museums; some in public institutions like the UN; others in universities. The rest would be in schools, people's houses and who knows where else.

Models don't have to be accurate, either. Perhaps there are some that are larger than the original satellite, which was 58 cm in diameter. Many would be smaller. They may use different materials, or get the angle and size of the antennas wrong. But they'll all have a shiny sphere with four long legs, the essential features of this space object which have come to symbolise the early Space Age.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Space junk: collection is easy, direction is hard to find.

My Twitter friend Stuart Palmer alerted me to this space junk song I didn't know about! It's a good one too. The Bats are a New Zealand band who have been around since the 1980s.

Here are the lyrics, which I have transcribed myself for your pleasure. Apologies if I have got some of them wrong. The cruisy tones sometimes made words difficult to distinguish!

Space junk is flying
And I'm goin' to go and get me some
It will be so easy
And I'll have a beautiful pile

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

Somewhere I'll hide it
Maybe on the mellow moon
Someday I'll go and find it
Sell it for a fortune back home

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

In the end of course I never made it
Cos I could never find a hollow moon
Space junk junk is still flying
And I'm waiting just for you to be

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

The song draws on the idea that space junk is collectible and valuable, just like the pieces of Skylab which scattered itself over Western Australia in 1979. It's junk in orbit, but a precious souvenir of space back on Earth. 

This makes me think about the definition of space junk and how it varies depending on where the fragment or defunct satellite is located between Earth and Earth orbit. For example, a returned spacecraft in a museum is not seen as junk because it is performing a function - communicating space science to the public.  A collected piece of junk also has a function for the person who owns it. It's a physical object that evokes the vastness of space and makes the person feel connected to it. Anything spaceflown has a magical pull for the Earthbound.

In the song, the space junk is also a compass for finding one's way in the universe. It's come to a final resting place, and its collector looks to it to provide a thread to the sky where perhaps a better world awaits. The space junk can't fulfil this role, though.

I like the way the song moves from the slightly facetious idea that a fortune can be made from selling space trash to the more melancholy reflection of being stuck on Earth still searching for a path.

I've been humming this song for days. Go Bats!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

'Some people don't worry, baby': Skylab blues and space junk anxiety

I do love the music inspired by the re-entry of the US space station Skylab in 1979. This one is by Grimsdell, a person or band about which I can find out almost nothing. Like several other space junk songs, it is rather grim, focusing on junk falling on people and houses. Skylab is almost drawn into some kind of karmic economy - it is coming for YOU, as if the guilty will die and the virtuous be saved. Or perhaps it's that virtue won't save you, and this is what's most frightening. Be apathetic, like the couch-potato Coors-sippers, or don't; it won't matter when the end comes.

You could also say that Skylab here is just a metaphor here for a general apocalypse, standing in for nuclear devastation

They say Skylab's fallin' out of the sky
They say some people may have to die
Could fall on my house, could fall on yours

Some people don't worry baby
They just sit back, watch TV, sip on their Coors
But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

They say it'll rain tons of scientific trash
The camera vault, a one mile-crater it'll mash
One supersonic bolt or one supersonic screw
May be fallin' out of orbit straight for you

But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction comes closer from the sky
They say the scientists don't know where it will fall
But people you know, it's gonna fall on y'all

They say there's no place, no place to run
They say there's no place, no place to hide
When it's all over baby, don't you know,
Many people gon' die

But each day now that passes by.
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues

Monday, September 03, 2018

Flying dreams and the human relationship to gravity

From time to time, I have flying dreams. Standing on my feet, just a tiny movement will launch me into the air, and I go soaring above the ground with my arms outstretched, as effortlessly as a bird, delighting in the freedom.

When I think about these dreams, they have certain elements in common. It's always sunny with a blue, blue sky - maybe a couple of white fluffy clouds. There is green, even grass below me. The ground is flat or gently undulating at most. There's always a house. Not a familiar house, more like a greeting-card house or a children's book illustration. There are no houses nearby, just the house on a wide green lawn. I fly above the house at a certain height. I can see trees and often there's a Hills Hoist clothesline in the garden. No fences, though. It's much lower than aeroplane height, and the view is always of the immediate environment of the house.

It's a domestic dream, and perhaps a child's dream, when your whole world revolves around the house and the extent of space is a concept you've yet to fully grasp.

When I wake up from a flying dream, I often still feel the lack of gravity. The sensation that I can just will myself into the air and fly stays with me until I put my feet on the ground and realise how heavy I am, and how adhesive gravity is. I feel intense sadness at this moment. Being heavy seems such a burden. After a few steps, the residues of the dream evaporate and I'm fully awake.

Thinking about these dreams has led me to a curious thought. What if they are part of a pre-adaptation to space?

Now it's true that the human body is not well adapted to microgravity, and we know a fair bit about this because of astronauts' experience in Earth-orbiting space stations. Blood pools in the upper body, muscles atrophy, bones lose their calcium and weaken. We probably don't really know enough yet about the long term health affects of living in space either - a year is a long, long time in space, and only a few people have spent that long up there.

Despite this, humans seem to have an urge to defy gravity, whether it's aeroplanes or rockets. This starts very early. Remember how you loved being thrown up in the air and caught when you were a little kid, and how it made you laugh? The thrilling sensation of a centrifuge, when an adult or older child held your hands and swung you around in a circle? And just how much fun swings in the local park were? Even little tiny babies love these things.

Swimming is fun because we can also defy gravity in water, moving in any direction we want with a twist and flap. In the water, our feet are not stuck to the clay of the Earth. There's nothing beneath them and our personal space expands to a sphere rather than a dome. It's just a shame that water exerts a drag that's absent in the air. Also, there are things that can bite you in water.

My desire to fly doesn't mean I'm drawn to sky-diving, or hang gliding, because that's not what this is about. It's about flight being in one's body, not a result of technology.

Having said that, I also have a slightly concerning desire to throw myself off heights just to experience the exhilaration of falling through the air. Maybe this is like Douglas Adams' 'learning to throw yourself at the ground and and miss'. I'm not afraid of heights, just afraid that if there isn't a barrier, the compulsion might become too great to resist. My lack of fear frightens me because I know logically that hitting the hard ground at acceleration is not going to have a good outcome.

I've learnt that this is called the High Place Phenomenon. One person described it thus: 'It was the opposite of vertigo. It was the urge to fly'.

I wonder how old this urge is, and if the much-vaunted 'urge to explore', when applied to space, is really just echo of a flying dream.

Collage by Pilar Zeta.