"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Come Sail Away with Bradbury and Post...and Me

Returning to the Elegant Subject of Solar Sails

This is life itself, to onward fly
A boy alone with Universe
who knows that he must go into the dark.
Before I explain the above poetry quotation, I have a confession. Sometimes I get sick of reading about space exploration. Albeit hypocritically, I often tire of reading the very kind of cosmic blogging I tend to do myself--subjective and sentimental pro-NASA/pro-space rhetoric. Here is an example from one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing.

One of The West Wing's most haunting episodes is entitled "The Warfare of Genghis Khan." Though the central plotline involves nuclear arms proliferation, a key subplot depicts a NASA employee befriending White House senior staffer Josh Lyman. Initially Josh is cynical about NASA, but soon he is won over by some good old-fashioned space evangelism and a boyish peek through a telescope. Sound naive? I think it does.

Why should we go to Mars, Josh asks. And the brilliant NASA scientist replies…adventure will nourish humanity's soul. Ug. Is this really the best reason a NASA employee, albeit a fictional one created by talented TV writers, can come up with? From a show of such indisputable intelligence, I expected reasoning that was more nuanced and politically savvy. Still, methinks I wax too grumpy.

Inspiring the public is a valid (if belabored) rationale for exploring space. On The West Wing, this reasoning pays dramatic dividends when Josh's newfound enthusiasm for NASA runs headlong into the episode's titular plotline about warfare. As Josh portends, in a world fraught with violent selfishness there is something "generous" about marshalling resources for peaceful exploration.

This brings me to the above poetry excerpt, which comes from a wonderful piece co-authored by Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post: "To Sail Beyond the Sun (A Luminous Collage)." Even though I’ve been a space enthusiast for decades, I only discovered this 20-year-old poem a few months ago. It was published in 1990 as part of a collection entitled: Project Solar Sail.

Project Solar Sail

I became aware of this book through the Fans of Arthur C. Clarke group on Goodreads.com. Sir Arthur edited this collection of original works by leading science writers. The published book was a fundraising effort to build support for a solar sail mission.

Recently, I scored an original copy on eBay. And over the last few days, I have read and reread Bradbury and Post's "To Sail Beyond the Sun (A Luminous Collage)." The poem's conceit, as I take it, is that humans are like solar sails. Fashioned from base material, we have proven sea-worthy, or rather, star-worthy. In coming weeks and months, I intend to read Project Solar Sail in its entirety, and pass on some of its rhetorical and practical value via this blog. For personal background, I hope you will read a previous blog post: Harnessing the Wind from the Sun.

For now I affirm a belief held by many space enthusiasts today. We humans are quite beautiful and precious, yet we remain coarse and superstitious children clinging to a small blue orb. Admitting that humble reality and then engaging in vigorous exploration can refine us into something even better. As cosmic poets Bradbury and Post express it:

We are the energy of Shakespeare's verse,
we are what mathematics wants to be--
The Life Force in the Universe
That longs to See!
That would Become
and give a voice to matter that was dumb.

We are, to the gates of gravity, the keys ...

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