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?