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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rocketing Up the Present Time

Hop on google.com, enter search terms relating to NASA and speeches, and you will find troves of addresses. I do not mean the rightly famous Kennedy speech about going to the moon, or Reagan’s moving tribute following the Challenger disaster. Rather, I mean speeches given by NASA’s administrators. Lower profile by historical standards, administrator speeches contain perspective and expertise politicians tend to lack. Moreover, these prepared remarks offer an opportunity to explore NASA as a potentially rich source of literature: thought, rhetoric, and a dose of good old-fashioned prose.

Lori B. Garver, August 2009
Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On September 11, 2012, then NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver spoke at the AIAA Space Conference in Pasadena, California. The AIAA (America Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) describes itself as the “largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession”. This annual conference brings together government, industry, and academia. For Garver, the audience doubtless included peers, allies, and even opponents of her efforts at NASA.

2012 was an election year. President Obama, who had nominated Garver to be NASA’s second in command in 2009, was struggling to be reelected. Yet, Garver did not lack achievements to tout. The previous month, NASA landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars after a dramatic and perilous descent. In May, fast-rising commercial enterprise SpaceX made its first docking with the International Space Station (Garver, 6).

Now we wade through a rough and hectic 2015. Commercial space companies are regrouping after recent launch failures. Next year’s presidential election is already soaking up the energy and attention span of the media and public. Taking some of the attention back, NASA recently celebrated the first ever flyby of Pluto. Now seems an appropriate time to revisit Administrator Garver’s speech. Below is a link to the text of her address. My analysis of the speech as a work of literature follows the link.


Disclaimer: This is an analysis of the text of Garver’s prepared remarks, not of the speech as actually delivered.

Space Shuttle Atlantis in the final flight of NASA's Shuttle Program
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Picture a NASA space shuttle lifting off, a trio of conical blue flames firing beneath it, bright exhaust erupting from two additional booster rockets. Now let’s go metaphorical. The rising shuttle symbolizes the Unites States space industry in the Present. It represents the efforts of everyone participating in space exploration and utilization today: elected officials, agency personnel, private industry, research professors, and amateur enthusiasts. The two solid rocket boosters symbolize the Past and Future, specifically NASA’s historical achievements and its ambitious goals for coming decades. The dual visions of where we have been and where we seek to go rocket up our current endeavors by adding prestige and conviction.

The above analogy is my own. That being said, I arrived at it by reading Lori Garver’s 2012 speech. Speaking to key players in the aerospace industry, Garver employs Time itself to sell her message. In ways both practical and philosophical, Time accentuates a speech aimed at justifying NASA’s course under the leadership of President Obama.

Early in her remarks, Garver acknowledges the date: September 11, 2012. She emphasizes it being “the 11th anniversary of 9-11” (Garver, 1). Beyond the act of commemoration, this statement introduces Time as a mark and measure of significance. As a means for providing perspective, this may seem a usual choice and not especially significant. However, over the course of her remarks Garver repeatedly invokes Time to strategic policy ends, not merely as an engine of nostalgia.

On the second page of her speech, Garver cites AIAA’s 49+ year mission to achieve “progress of engineering and science in aviation, space, and defense…” Having cited the organization’s age, she can later draw a parallel to NASA’s similar age. She does so by mentioning the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and also the 50th anniversary of Kennedy Space Center (6, 8). The kinship of NASA with academia and private industry is quantified through their similar ages. I am reminded of a coworker who, on my 40th birthday, welcomed me into the 40-something club. This produced a sense of belonging.

Clearly, one of Garver’s goals with this speech is to underscore NASA’s bond with the AIAA membership. In part, she does this by noting the passing earlier in 2012 of both Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride (2). In addition to being iconic figures of a government agency, both dedicated their careers to the advancement of space exploration through academia and industry. However, this speech does not focus on the passing of heroes. The bulk of Garver’s remarks detail NASA’s ongoing efforts to advance society through exploration. Her chief tool for accentuating NASA’s contribution is Time.

The theme of AIAA’s 2012 conference was “Creating a Sustainable Vision for Space” (4). According to Garver, this “fits perfectly with the mission NASA” pursued over the previous four years. This four-year time frame marks the first term of President Barack Obama. She reiterates this four-year period over the course of the speech (4-5, 9, 13).

In a move that could be considered politically careful, Garver makes a point of mentioning how President Obama “inherited” the previous administration’s decision to “end NASA’s 30-year Shuttle Program” (4). She does not mention President George W. Bush by name and this is the most specific Garver ever gets when mentioning opponents of Obama’s vision for NASA.

Focusing back on Time, in the above example Garver refers to the Shuttle Program by its age. Elsewhere, she does this for both AIAA and Kennedy Space Center. Doing so instills a sense of mortality, not merely for aerospace players, but for their programs. Garver speaks of bipartisan legislation from 2010 that extended “the life of the International Space Station” (4-5). The implication being that without adequate support the ISS (like the Shuttle Program) would have died.

Garver pivots from the ending of the Shuttle Program under Bush to the present efforts of Obama with back to back utterances of the four-year time frame. “What a difference four years makes:” ends one paragraph. The next paragraph begins, “Over the last four years, the Obama Administration has proposed a record four-year investment…” (5).

From here forward, the speech takes on a State of the Union flavor while continuing to mark significance via Time’s passage. There are references to the years by which certain achievements will take place: “By 2017”; “by the mid 2030s”. Citing the almost half-century since Apollo, she highlights NASA’s “dual-track exploration strategy”. This strategy transfers the task of shuttling supplies and astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit from NASA to private industry. In turn, this frees up NASA to develop the Space Launch System, which will take “human spaceflight farther into space” than any mission flown in the four decades since Apollo missions (6).

Crowds watch the Curiosity Rover landing coverage in Times Square
Image Credit: Toshiba via NASA

Garver also blends time references with geographic scale to nationalistic effect. She does this while recounting the Curiosity Rover’s momentous landing on Mars: “The whole world literally held its breath on the night of August 5th or morning of August 6th (depending on which coast you stood)…” (9).

Let’s pardon her for using “literally” in a hyperbolic way. It’s safe to say many in the world did not follow the landing in real time, if at all, let alone holding their breath during a landing sequence dubbed the Seven Minutes of Terror. Suffice it so say, this was a tense and thrilling event for the literal crowds who followed it live. Garver, by citing coastal time zones, imbues the excitement of the occasion with from-sea-to-shining-sea imagery. Nationalism, à la the hymn America the Beautiful, finds itself boosted by this reference to continent-spanning time zones.

Arguably the greatest effect of the above passage is to put supreme emphasis on the Present (or at least the very recent Past). Garver’s cited era of space achievement spans 80 years or more, factoring in references to the 1960s and looking toward the 2030s. The Present becomes a bustling industrial program where the Future is under construction. Garver speaks of the Future in architectural terms both here and near the end of the speech (9, 13).

As she concludes her remarks, Garver returns to the memory of astronauts Armstrong and Ride, placing herself and AIAA on their shoulders. She credits all “who have laid the foundation for an even brighter future”. Quoting Armstrong’s family, she characterizes NASA and AIAA’s ongoing efforts as honoring the astronaut’s desire to push the limits of exploration. “That is our mission and this is our moment.” With this closing remark, the Present is made an imperative. The Present becomes a crucial point in Time, its worth and intensity rocketed up by an esteemed Past and a triumphant Future.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Treading "In Harm's Way"

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its SurvivorsIn Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."

Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.

The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.

For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.

Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II.

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