Another History Lesson

James A. Michener was a very popular author who wrote massive historical fiction books.  Several of these were turned into successful movies including “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “Hawaii”.  Others were made into TV miniseries like “Centennial.”   His stories were the basis for the classic musical “South Pacific.”  Obviously, Michener had a talent for reaching the popular culture in his day. 

A very good author of fiction can highlight human emotions and motivations in ways that strict historians cannot.  Really good fiction can help us understand the truths that underlie human life and its interactions.  Michener was always interested in what makes people tick. 

For the last week, a short section of his novel “Space” has been on my mind.  This part of the written work didn’t make the Hollywood film version; a pity that it didn’t. 

I’ve been wrestling on how to interpret this snippet in a blog; so far I have imagined at least 5 different ways to apply it as analogy to America’s space program in these days.  These applications are good for various positions in the current debate on space.  Picking one would probably give too much aid and comfort to one group and arouse the ire of the others.  So I won’t give you my interpretation.  I’ll offer the section for your consideration and wait for your comments to see how you think it applies today.


Near the end of the book, one of the fictional characters recounts an actual historical event as part of a planetarium show. 

“When the lights go down we shall see the heavens as they are outside this planetarium.  Now, I’m going to turn the sky-clock back 922 years.  It is again June 22 in A.D. 1054.  The sky look almost the same as it does tonight, a few planets in different positions, but that’s about all.

‘I’m going to speed through eighteen days, and here we have the heavens as they appeared at sunset on the night of 10 July 1054.  Let’s go to midnight in Baghdad, where Arabic astronomers are looking at the sky, as they always did.  Nothing unusual.  Now its 11 July 1054, toward three in the morning.  Still nothing exceptional.  But look!  There in the constellation Taurus!”

In the silence of the planetarium the audience watched in awe as an extremely brilliant light began to emerge from the far tip of the Bull’s horn.  It exceeded anything else in the heavens, infinitely brighter even than Venus, and increasing in brilliance each moment.

‘It was a supernova, in the constellation Taurus, and we know the exact date because Arabic astronomers in many countries saw it and made notes which confirmed the sightings in China.  Indians in Arizona saw it and marveled.  In the South Pacific, natives marked the miracle.  And watch as the daylight comes in 1054!  The new star is so bright it can be seen even against the rays of the Sun, which was not far off in Cancer.

‘For twenty-three days, the astronomers of Cathay and Araby tell us, this supernova dominated the sky, almost as bright as the sun, the most incandescent event in recorded history.  No other nova ever came close to this one. . . . .

‘This great star, which must have been the most extraordinary sight in the history of the heavens during mankind’s observation, was noted in China, in Arabia, in Alaska, in Arizona, and in the South Pacific, for we have their records to prove it.  But in Europe nobody saw it.  From Italy to Moscow, from the Urals to Ireland, nobody saw it.  At least, they made no mention of it. they lived through one of the Earth’s most magnificent spectacles and nobody bothered even to note the fact in any parchment, or speculate upon it in any manuscript.

‘We know the event took place, for with a telescope tonight we can see the remnants of the supernova hiding in Taurus, but we have searched every library in the western world without finding a single shred of evidence that the learned people of Europe even bothered to notice what was happening about them.

‘An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.'”


Godspeed Endeavour and your crew. 

12 thoughts on “Another History Lesson”

  1. When the brightness is really, really dazzles, and there are few who can see directly.

  2. Wayne,

    I find this post especially poignant considering the “events” of the past week. I think it’s another example of the old saying that history repeats itself. The only difference is that this is the dawn of a new dark age (I know the terms are inconsistent but there it is) only this time it is not an age of ignorance it will be an age of willful neglect. The coming dark age, if allowed to stand, will be one forced upon our children and will be far worse than anything before.

  3. If NASA wants to fly in Space beyond LEO I suggest you all go learn to speak Mandarin, Russian, Indian and Japanese, because your English language skills will now be wasted and not appreciated in the US.

  4. Just watched Endeavours launch. What a smooth clean countdown and launch. Cant believe just when NASA is getting really good with STS its going to be shutdown. What a waste of great hardware and the people behind it. People need to be reminded that the Shuttle is, to date, statistically the safest manned space flight system, even safer than Soyuz. I wish some multi billionaire, or ESA, or JAXA would come to the rescue and give NASA 3 Billion a year to fly the Shuttle to at least 2015, what a trivial price to pay that would be.

  5. Wayne,

    I have just pulled my off a bookshelf, my 1982 UK first edition hardcover copy of ‘Space’. On the backcover is Michener and one of the Shuttle launch pads, alas no shuttle.

    Perhaps Gemini to Apollo should be seen as as a supernova of human exploration of space and we returned to the dark age thereafter.

    On page 612 Michener presents a table of distances to some stars within our galaxy. The table is filled with zeros and is part of a presentation Mott is making to a commission about the possibility of finding life in outer space. Mott apologies to the scientifically literate part of his audience for not using power of 10 notation. He use zeros for the lay members of his audience who might not understand powers of 10.

    Mott would be well advised to use zeros today. Advances in computing and communications mean a smaller portion of the community need to understand science today – and thus a smaller proportion do.

    But those same advances are also space travel enabling technologies that are moving at such a rate its as if the supernova is hot enough to blow the atmosphere off the earth.

    Add in telescope advances and we can explore our knowable universe driving an iPAD while sitting in an armchair waiting for the next Superbowl commercial.

    Today, iPAD designs can be prototyped and tested in hours using electronic circuitry modelling and testing software. The same applies to much of spacecraft design.

    But some things are not so easy to research outside a national lab – like nuclear and other non-chemical propulsion systems. Successful research, however, could cut billions off the Government budget to explore the solar system 20 years from now.

    But, in my view, it would be saving billions from a smaller budget. Bill Gates did not worry too much about the other computing majors. He feared two as yet unknown guys in a garage like he once was. They made Google. No doubt Google fears two guys with iPad style devices cutting college classes to work 16 hours a day on their own project. One PHD student in Australia sold his search engine to Google for millions.

    New invention comes along when people strive to achieve goals. America leads in computing because every success spurs others to do even better.

    The US needs an active Government led Beyond LEO program producing rockets to inspire people to study maths, science and engineering today so they too can aspire to be the space travellers of tomorrow.

    Of those who tailor their early studies due to childhood aspirations, take part in moonbuggy races and launch rockets a mile into the air from a ploughed field, 99.5% won’t make it into space. But some will turn windows and roof tiles into cheap efficient solar collectors, others will find cures to various cancers, and others will invent what can only be described as weird stuff today.

    Why do people the world over care what NASA does, what the US does?? It is doing things other nations cannot. The US can show the children of Afghanistan and the world a special star in the sky – the ISS as it passes over their country. Even with cheap binoculars, its shape is unmistakable. The US can show them through international partnerships that their world does not end at their village or town.

    Few people outside the US care about your brand of football. The UK is the world power in football for the children of Africa.

    Hollywood, US pop culture and computer games do reach a worldwide audience. But they don’t inspire many people to study or achieve great things for their country.

    An active human space exploration won’t bring the troops home quicker from Afghanistan, but it is a factor, like soccer, in aspiring kids to be in school and university wanting to be part of their nation’s success so they too can achieve great things.

    An active long-term human space exploration program should be seen as a long-term generator of taxes and a cutter of government expenditure.

  6. Wayne,

    An example where NASA could assist the US auto industry take advantage of aerospace technology to speed electric vehicle adoption.

    Jaguar cars in the UK has a research program to use small jet engines as range extender motors for electric vehicles.

    The Jaguar prototype can run on virtually any fuel and does not not require cooling for automobile use. Its burn time ensures low emissions.

    First developed in the 1950s the engines had slow response to foot on the accelerator and thus failed to go into mass production.

    Unlike cylinder-piston engines, jet engines are efficient over a wide power band without a lot of control equipment.

    Jet engines are a technology in which the US has deep experience. Hooked to a generator, they offer the prospect of rapid introduction of electric vehicles in the US which has one of the longest average journey times in the world and therefore on a path to be a follower of other nations in electric vehicle technology.

    A range of 40kW to 200kW jet engines would cover most applications.

  7. Dear Wayne, believe it or not, this is the first time I have responded to a blog. A couple of things to get out of the way. I must confess that although I don’t know you, I feel as though I do from reading your blogs, and of course during your Shuttle days, watching you on NASA TV. That of course is due to your ability to communicate in an honest and straight forward way, and in a way that those of us who are not ” rocket scientisits ” can understand. A little about me. Born in 1956. Sat on the end of my parents bed in Tucson Arizona May 5th 1961, July 21st 1961, February 20th 1962 etc etc. Stayed inside and missed little league championship June 4, 1965. Came home from camp early in July 1966 so as to not miss John Young fly again. Was kept away from the TV set January 27th 1967 by my family who for some reason wanted to play board games that night ( we never did that ! ) because they didnt want me to see the CBS news ” Flash “. Turned my room into a combination of the Air and Space Museum and a Revell/Monogram outlet, not to mention a showcase for everything from the Superintendant of Documents releated to Apollo. I have everything to this day and I mean everything. My Mother took me to Florida for the Launch of Apollo 11, and we toured Complex 34 and 39 two days after the launch. I can name every crew from Alan Shepard to Vance Brand, Mercury through Apollo-Soyuz. All the while, I studied hard, received an appointment to the US Navel Acadamy, didnt commit due to non 20/20, received a Degree in Business from the University of Arizona. Spent 21 years with Macy’s, and while every other Exec was playing Golf, I learned to fly Gliders and Airplanes, earned Commercial and Instructor ratings in both. Retired from retail in 1999, flew 3000 more hours, added all the ground Instructor Ratings, became a Pilot Examiner for the FAA ( still am ) then joined my current company Swift Air ( a part 135/121 Charter Airline) as the Operations Control Manager in 2006. I’m not a ” Rocket Scientist ” but like many Americans, I know the value of what the Space Program brought to this country in Emotional, Scientific, Economic, and Nationalistic terms. I saw a clip a couple of days ago, where the President talked about ” sailing, on this new Ocean, and how we dare not be anything but first”. The President speaking, was not our current Commander in Chief. Wayne, I dont believe the President understands what cancelling Constellation means in any of these terms, except maybe economic, and I think he is dead wrong there also. This is not Law Review, and Basketball Courts. Your comments in this blog lead me to think, many, like myself, after reading your last couple, think that you are towing the administration line, much like the Administrator. It does not sound like you. This is not a Canadian Fighter whose designers moved to Gemini. Ok, maybe Aries is not right, maybe earth orbit rendevous is wrong( again lol ) but Orion is ready. Nasa can’t be research and developement, without something to research and develop. Space is already privitezed unless Lockheed is a Government Agency. When did that happen ? Space X ??? Are you kidding? Someone needs to be specific. What is going to replace the Shuttle. When. What hardware are we using to press on to the Moon and Mars. When. People like me, are counting on people like you. This is not the Agency for the Politics of Personality as someone just said, and Ms Palin is not a rocket scientist for sure, with all due respect, and she gets it ! Ed G, CC, Gus, Roger, Ed W,and all our fallen shuttle astronauts who you knew and loved need to hear from you, people like me need to hear from you. What are we missing? Why is the “new ” direction a good idea. Help!! Kindest and most respectful regards, Tony.

  8. China was the world’s richest country for most of history. Now that the world is returning to it’s historic state the line should read, “was noted in China, in Arabia, in Europe, for we have their records to prove it. But in America nobody saw it.”

  9. Hi Wayne,

    Just like many other human space flight followers, I am very sorry about the decision to cancel constellation. However I am also reliefed that NASA will now look for more alternative ways to goto LEO and beyond. I always wanted to see a new program take off after shuttle retires. But I never really get excited about using 40 years old Apollo capsules. After reading reports about the progress of constellation program, and watching the press meetings on NASA TV it was obvious that program was way behind the schedule. Also I have to note that even the managers of constellation noted that even if money gets doubled now it is too late to accelerate the program to meet the targets.

    As I said before we are all upset. However we should also understand that next frontier is out of home planet with goverment supported commercial flight capabilities.

    One last note about the human space flight targets vs progress. Our target was exploring the unknown and it is not and will not be changed. Humans will find a way to go places we never go. Columbus did his jorney because he believed that he could succeed with our without goverment.

    We are going to leave this planet one day, It is just matter of time. Problem for us (Fans of HSF), is we wanted to see that day. However as you said we can only go 250 miles away from earth with 50 years of afford, How long will it take to go millions of miles away?

  10. Great post about a great book, Wayne. I’ve read Space twice over the years; having one fictional astronaut from my hometown, Kosciusko, Miss. especially peaked my enthusiasm! The thing that most impacted me about the book, however, was a Latin phrase Michener used. To me it perfectly describes the space program. Long ago I wrote it down on a piece of paper and taped it within sight on my work hutch–its there still: “Sub specie aeternitatis.” “Under the eye of eternity.”

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