TCS Daily

Help Wanted: A Scribe to Illuminate the Space Experience

By James Pinkerton - May 21, 2001 12:00 AM

Why is it hard to go to space? Well, there's the cost, the difficulty, and the danger. But the dream of an energetic space program faces an even greater hurdle: it lacks an inspiring first-person lore, of the sort that stirs others to go forth even more boldly.

For eons, ocean voyagers came back from their adventures, speaking and writing of wine-dark sea, where they confronted not only wind and storm but also leviathans, white whales, flying dutchmen-even the occasional ominous albatross. And so for those same eons, the young yearned to follow their elders onto those waters, seeking adventures, treasures, and pleasures of their own. The result was a robust "sea program," all the more effective because it was so ever-refreshingly spontaneous across the millennia.

And in the last century, the worldwide "air program" was bolstered by a body of non-fiction literature, much of it written, interestingly enough, by women. In her 1935 book, North to the Orient, Anne Morrow Lindbergh described the flying expedition that she and her husband Charles took from New York to Tokyo. It was an occasion for her to reflect upon, for example, "the chasm between accessibility and isolation-narrow, so one could reach across, but deep as time." Another aerial lyricizer was Beryl Markham, author of West With the Night (1942), in which she observed, "We fly but we have not 'conquered' the air. Nature presides in all her dignity...It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles." Such writers were sincere chroniclers of what they saw in the wild blue yonder, but they also added wordsmithing value, such that their work transcends time and technology.

By contrast, while the idea of space travel has produced an infinity of high-quality science fiction, the reality of space travel hasn't produced many high-flying memoirs. Many have tried, of course, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Glenn. But none of these star-trekkers came home and wrote adventures which find a place in the pantheon next to, say, Moby-Dick, the semi-autobiographical 1851 novel of onetime whaler Herman Melville.

In fairness to the astronauts, they were selected for their military/scientific backgrounds, and so it's not surprising that no poets have popped up from amidst their practical-minded ranks. On the other hand, sea and even air adventure has involved many more people, and so statistically it was inevitable that writers and rhymesters would find their way into crews.

So space buffs might just have to wait for that rarest of birds: a space man, or woman, who can combine technical proficiency out there with lyrical talent down here. And so as long as we're waiting for inspiration-or an inspirer-to strike, we might consider an historical/cultural/theological analogy. And why not think big? Why not think about the Bible? After all, even the most ardent atheist would concede that much of the Bible is based on fact; it's undeniable that the Hebrews moved into ancient Israel and that the Old Testament, in its own fashion, tells that story. And it's a heckuva story.

That's the point made by Bruce Feiler, author of a new book, Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses, that spent six weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Feiler describes himself as a Reform Jew with no strong religious feeling, but he nonetheless felt called to retrace, and thereby remember, his heritage. And so he went on a 10,000-mile adventure-on foot, on camel, on rowboat-across, as he writes, "three continents, four war zones, and five countries." As he puts it, "The Bible is not only a book of faith, not only a book of history--it's also a guidebook."

Yet Feiler's work would not be a critical and commercial success if it were a mere Mideast travelogue. Although the author claims no religious epiphany as he passed through these storied lands, he was nonetheless moved by what he saw, and his prose reflects that intensity of response: "I began to feel a certain pull from the landscape...It was a feeling of gravity. A feeling that I wanted to take off all my clothes and lie face down in the soil."

So Walking the Bible struck a chord. And wouldn't it be nice if someone would do the same historical/experiential number on space? Say, "Walking in Space"? In fact, that was title of a song from the 1968 musical "Hair," which featured such trippy lyrics as, "My body is walking in space/My soul is in orbit with god face to face/floating, flipping, flying, tripping." Of course, the traveling at issue in that song was pharmaceutical, not extra-terrestrial. Still, in an odd way the motivation for songwriters Gerome Ragni and James Rado must have been somewhat similar to that of Melville or Feiler: the creative spirit goes somewhere, literally or metaphorically, has a wondrous experience, and comes back to tell the rest of us about it. And if the work-product is good enough, it will attract an audience, and out of that audience will emerge others who want to do it, too. Only better.

That's what space needs, and that's what space doesn't have. Yet.

But as the space program enlarges, as more different kinds of people get to go, it's likely that someone with the power to capture the popular imagination will yet emerge. Californian millionaire Dennis Tito, for example, is obviously more than a money-minded drudge; he took his opera CD's to space with him as he traveled aboard the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station. "I've met my dream," he told the Associated Press upon his return, adding, "I found eight days in space was the most unique experience a human being could have and I am surprised that many of the people who have been to space have not expressed it this way."

Is Dennis Tito up to the challenge of expressing space in a better way? Could he write a Moby-Dick or a West With the Night for space? Only time will tell. But Bruce Feiler could. He has already proven that he has the capacity to breathe new life into old stories; indeed, he can even get people to pay for the privilege of sharing his experience.

So some space visionary should send Feiler up for a Walk in Space, confident that when he came back, he would have a story to tell. It might not be the greatest story ever told, but it would be a great story, and it would be a great boost to the space program, now and forever.

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