High Culture and Spaceflight

Last week’s post with a pop-culture (movie) quotation generated a lot of response.  Frankly, I am a bit embarrassed by the using such a “low” form of reference.  So this week I’ll start with a high brow reference:

 Picture from ISS yesterday (3/29/2010)

Tennyson’s Ulysses (1842):


            Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew



Almost all of us suffered through some exposure to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey during our school days.  Those works are considered to be classics of western literature, and even after 2,500 years Odysseus’ (or Ulysses’) travels can still stir the imagination.  Tennyson was moved to update the tale in the 19th century and his work also ranks in the classics. 


In the passage quoted above, Odysseus/Ulysses entices his friends to accompany him on a new adventure, one of exploration and discovery.  This is the original version of the “flexible path” since there are any number of destinations:  “a newer world”, and the “baths of the western stars” which lie “beyond the sunset.”   He intends for his crew to row (“smite the sounding furrows”) to the land of the dead (“the Happy Isles”) to see those departed from this life (“the great Achilles, whom we knew”).  This voyage to continue “until I die”. 


This sort of stuff has attracted adolescents since, well, time immemorial.  No clear destination   just go.  No clear timeline — just go now and it should never end.  No commercial gain, no practical end, just a journey.  In fact, it is the journey, not the destination, which is the purpose. 


Sorta like “second star to the right, and straight on till morning” – another literary allusion. 


What part of the human psyche is not attracted to this romantic vision? 


So it has been for me.  When I signed on to NASA’s payroll, I thought that we would do this shuttle thing for a few years, maybe build a space station, and then we would be off to the Moon and Mars and all the other places in the solar system.  Sometime after that maybe somebody would invent a way to travel to the stars and I could be involved in that, too.  Maybe it was watching too much Star Trek, Star Wars, reading Robert Heinlein; but it also certainly involved too much Homer and his Odysseus. 


Circumstances have turned out somewhat different than I expected.  Not that it hasn’t been a great adventure, it’s just that we haven’t gotten very far “beyond the sunset” in over 30 years of trying.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve tried to not grow up. 


Time for something new, I suppose. 


Lots of folks believe that they can invent/develop/complete new ways to “smite the furrows” of space.  It may be harder than they expect.  On the other hand, maybe there are new tricks that old dogs haven’t yet learned that will revolutionize space travel.  Certainly we need that.


Since I started with a ‘high brow’ literary reference, I’ll leave you with another to ponder.  Be sure to read the words carefully to catch the full meaning.


Henry IV Part I Act 3 Scene 1 line 53, by William Shakespeare:


Glendower:  I can call spirits from the vasty deep

Hotspur:  Why, so can I, or so can any man;

            But will they come when you do call for them?

8 thoughts on “High Culture and Spaceflight”

  1. Vasty deep – could be the outer reality extending beyond our home, country, maybe even beyond planet Earth. However, it could be the depth of our psyche and the spirits or possibly demons within that should not be summoned.

  2. Mr. Wayne

    It has improved the quotes (fine) without losing the content implied richly exploitable, Mr. Wayne. I believe that hope is something that we must never lose, even if the difficulties many ejam. You can change your mind about something you want that much, but hope to be happy, this can never be lost. And if space is our happiness, we insist.

    The invitation by the poem is great, and really is irresistible for those who, in being eternal child, it is always willing to grow. We want to grow, explore what has allowed us to view: the stars. You said well, this is live, and is above all else in importance. There is a new chance, a new time and really a revolution can occur. If things are not easy, the greater the merit of victory.

    As the quote from Shakespeare I say I am not a “spirit of the deep”, but if you call me, I will. Whenever I make an effort to be compared to a celestial spirit (perhaps for that I will eventually look like a devil) and I understand that one should not hold grievances and grudges, if there is a reason to say no. This gives a loss and only complicates things. Maybe I want more than any of you NASA a Homeric adventure. I am not a “spirit of the deep”, but I can help.

    “Browsing is necessary”

  3. During a recent very bad dream.

    2 February 2031. News Update from our affiliated news sources.


    NASA today announced it would terminate all work on the last funded unmanned space probe called the Mars Sample Return Project after the new US President terminated all funding for the project and announced a new Vision after a special Commission recommended a new flexible path. The new Vision, including extra funding, involves creating commercial 3D movies from previous unmanned NASA Mars mission video, from the period 2010 to 2025, for a new theme park at what was the Kennedy Space Center, but will not involve any actual unmanned flights.

    The Office of Budget Management has hailed this as one giant leap forward in commercial space saying we can now better utilise the now empty space around Cape Canaveral.

    More than 21 years after a former US Administration terminated the US manned space flight program with no follow up program, and 20 years after the last ever US manned spaceflight the question, in recent years, is why do we keep sending unmanned probes to places we have already sent probes to. NASA unmanned space officials are reportedly dismayed, in shock and have stated they only thought this could happen to the manned spaceflight people and not them.

    A few members of Congress are also dismayed with this new Vision and say they will fight the Presidents budget proposal for 2032. Mean while, in other space news, India launched its 10th manned mission to the new Chinese Space Port, which is the waypoint to the manned Russian Lunar Base called Moscow2. China also recently announced its plans to fly manned missions to Mars within the decade.

    The collapse of the US Space program, triggered over 20 years ago, means there will be no further US involvement in any manned or unmanned space missions. Commercial space advocates, however, state they look forward to the release of the first MARS 3D movie at the new Cape Canaveral theme park and we all should be thrilled with that as a substitute for a real unmanned space program, although no timetable has been announced for its opening.

    Chinese Government officials stated, on news of their new Manned Mars Flights, that their manned space flight program added greatly to their Gross Domestic Product, their science and engineering capacity for the nation and the support from their citizens would ensure their program had a bright and prosperous future not only for China but for all mankind.


  4. You know, the old dogs had this all wrong. If you can get a hamster to run fast enough, eventually it’ll reach orbit. Hamsters are the future. Commercial Hamster Dev here we come.

  5. (love #4 the hamster thing)

    So what’s the answer?

    Do we or don’t we engage the enormous commercial machine known as the American economy in the field of Human Spaceflight and all of “the other things”?

    Or, do engineers go up to the spirits on cloud 9(th) and say “We’re unhappy and we’re gonna tell you ‘what’s what’ just as soon as you’ve got the new cloud computing system to enable us to do it?

    In the ‘cradle-of-civilization’ an ancient group of sooth-sayers, the New Astrological Sumerian Agency, once said “You can’t serve King and mammon”

    The King has his staff in servitude and his subjects live and prosper in commercial liberty.

    Without the peoples prosperity, the King would have no Babylonian credits to finance his rule.

    The buck may stop with the King, but it starts with the people.

    Viva la US of A !

  6. New report on the ISS Russian PAO Event 4-12-2010

    “Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the International Space Station early Monday to mark the 49th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, suggesting an international space summit to discuss ongoing and future cooperative ventures on the high frontier.

    “Space is our highest priority, regardless of how hard the economic situation is in the country,” Medvedev said in translated remarks. “Space will always remain our priority. This is not just somebody’s interpretation, it’s our official state position. I am here in my presidential office and when addressing you, I can confirm again the significance of space for the government”

  7. “More than 21 years after a former US Administration terminated the US manned space flight program with no follow up program, and 20 years after the last ever US manned spaceflight the question, in recent years, is why do we keep sending unmanned probes to places we have already sent probes to.”

    Nixon canceled Apollo, but NASA lived on. In retrospect, the period between ASTP and STS-1 was not an end to human spaceflight and nor is the period between the end of the Shuttle program (which was canceled in 2004, under the previous administration) and the beginning of flying astronauts on commercial vehicles (which is the follow-up). The idea that commercial spaceflight will fail ignores the history of the transition from early aviation (e.g. the Wright Brothers, NACA, etc.) to the multi-billion dollar aviation industry today, and it ignores the history of the transition from the physically enormous academic and government computers to the comparatively tiny computers we have today; new technologies almost always start out expensive, complex, and rare, but they often become cheap, less complex, and commonplace when capitalism takes control.

    It also ignores the successes of commercial spaceflight: the first commercial human spaceflight (SS1, 2004), the first privately-funded rocket to reach LEO (Pegasus, 1990), the first privately-funded rocket to reach LEO from the ground (Falcon 1, 2008), and the upcoming first flight of Falcon 9 on Friday.

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