Sunday, January 25, 2015

The first Australian to orbit the Earth

Who was the first Australian in space?

Andy Thomas? Paul Scully-Power? I hear you say.

Well, no. The first Australian in space was a young boy called Neville in the early 20th century.

What? How was that possible before the WWII rockets? Will you tell us the story?

I thought you'd never ask.

Actually, it's not my story. Famous Australian writer C.J. Dennis first set down the events in The boy who rode into the sunset.

Sometime before 1921, Neville lived with his family on the outskirts of an unnamed Australian city. One evening he was standing on top of a hill watching the clouds, when one formed into a horse and approached him. The horse (rather manipulatively) enticed him to mount it, and then took flight, riding straight into the sunset.

The sunset is not what it seems. It's an orchestrated performance that has to continually move around the world with the terminator (the dividing line between night and day). As Neville arrives, the Last Sunbeam is getting ready to move the sunset to the next location. His boss, the head scene-shifter, isn't very pleased to see Neville, but there's a problem: how can they get him home again? The cloud horse can only follow the sunset; it can't go backwards. The only solution is for him to go round the Earth ahead of the sunset. Nev is justifiably a little nervous about this proposal, but the Last Sunbeam has it all sorted. He gives him a blue flower - made out of a 'genuine piece of sky' - which he has to give to the Porter of Dawn on the other side of the world in order to be let through. The Sky Flower will also defy gravity to allow him to jump off the cloud horse when they reach Neville's home again. The cloud horse, from this point on, loses its agency and effectively becomes a satellite.

So the cloud horse takes off with Neville on his back. This is what he sees as they fly over the world:
Almost before he knew what had happened, he had left evening far behind and was riding in broad daylight. The cloud Horse had ridden high in the air, and Neville saw the broad country, with plains and hills and forest lands, stretched far beneath him. An instant later, and the land was no longer below him, but the wide sea, sparkling in brilliant sunlight.
Before he had time to notice very much he had reached mid-day, high over a strange foreign land, and was racing through the morning toward the dawn. So quickly did he go that there was little chance of seeing anything clearly; but he had glimpses of many strange sights. Many ships he saw upon the sea - small ships and stately steamers crawling over the ocean like strange water-beetles. Once, as the Cloud Horse drifted low, Neville saw a beautiful sailing-ship, with all sails set, and strange-looking men upon the deck. They looked very like pirates, and perhaps they were; but Neville had no time to make sure, for the very next minute he was over a wild land where he saw a horde of black men, with spears and clubs, hunting an elephant through a clearing in a great jungle. As he looked, the elephant turned to charge the hunters; but what happened then Neville did not see, for in a moment more he was above a great city with crowds of people in the streets - people dressed in strange, bright-coloured clothes - and there were bells ringing and whistles blowing. Then a great desert spread beneath him, with no living thing in sight but a great tawny lion prowling over the sand. Then came the sea again, and more ships; and the light began to grow dim, for he was nearly half-way round the earth, and was approaching the dawn
He arrives at the silver gateway of the dawn. The Dawn Porter sees the Sky Flower and lets him through. an instant Neville had passed through the dawn and plunged into the night. 
It was a dark night, with no moon, for the sky was overcast with dense clouds. Above these the Cloud horse flew, and overhead Neville saw the rushing stars, and below only the blackness of heavy clouds. But more often the Cloud horse flew low, and then there was little to be seen. By the lights of moving ships Neville knew that sometimes he was above the sea. Sometimes twinkling lights in towns or solitary farms, or the sudden blaze of a great city told him that the land was beneath him. Once, through the blackness, he saw a great forest fire upon an island, and the light of it lit up the sea, and showed the natives crowded upon the beach and in the shallows, and some making off in canoes.
Then darkness swallowed the Cloud Horse again, and the blazing island was left far behind.
After that, Neville began to feel a little drowsy. Perhaps he did sleep a little, for the next thing he saw was a faint light in the sky before him, as though the dawn were coming. But he knew it must be the evening, because he was coming back to the place from which he had started, and was catching up with the sun. You see, he had only been gone a few minutes.
The Cloud Horse flew very low now; and rapidly the darkness grew less. Then, long before he expected it, Neville saw the roof of his own home below him. He could see the garden in the twilight and his own dog sniffing about among the trees as though in search of him.
Using the Sky Flower, Neville jumps from the horse and arrives safely home in time for dinner. He gives the Sky Flower to his mother, and as it's a genuine piece of sky, it never fades.

Neville's view as he approaches his house
To get around the world in a few minutes, the cloud horse is clearly very high and very fast (in fact it takes 90 minutes in Low Earth Orbit at about 200 km).  When Yuri Gagarin made his orbit in 1962, there was great interest in what he could see. To be visible from space - or reputed to be - is a measure of cultural significance.

Neville's view is perhaps typical of a certain kind of colonial geography. He sees Indigenous people struggling against nature: the hordes of black men in the wild land, with the elephant their equal, about to fight back; the burning island with the 'natives' fleeing into the sea. In the cities, people dressed in bright colours are strange and their noisiness (bells, whistles) is part of their exoticism. By contrast, colonised Australia is ordered roads, farm houses, and cleared fields:
Neville clung on tightly, for he was so high above the earth that to fall off would mean the end of him. And far beneath him he saw the green fields and the white road, which now seemed like a mere thread.
He was high over a farm-house now: one that he used to see from the bald hill. He knew it by the tall pine-trees that grew round it ....Now he was far beyond that farm house and above an orchard, where he saw the fruit-trees standing in straight rows ....
It's a tame land, not a wild land.

As you know, I'm very interested in how people imagine experiences of being in space. (As in here and here).  I do think this is a rather lovely description of what it might be like to be in orbit. Neville and the cloud horse are not described as being in space, and much of what he sees you wouldn't even be able to discern from an aeroplane, let alone a satellite. Remember in this era very little was known of the upper atmosphere; and we have enough trouble defining where space begins today. Dennis is thinking specifically of aerial views ('Of course, now that aeroplanes have been invented, flying is not thought so wonderful as once it was'), but Neville's speed is in contradiction to this. And he clearly does make a complete orbit!

C.J. Dennis' charming illustration of a biplane. Gosh, those two are having fun!

The Sky Flower is an interesting touch. It's a talisman, as the Last Sunbeam explains to Neville (I found that such a fascinating word as a child. I had to ask my mother what it meant). A little later (1927-1928), Hugh Lofting also used flowers in space - when Dr Dolittle flies to the moon on the giant microgravity moth Jamaro Bumblelily, oxygen-storing flowers are used as breathing devices.

So that's the story of the first Australian in space. Think of it next time you stand gazing into the sunset!

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