Storyteller Jay O'Callahan (Photo: Charles Collins)
Living on Earth’s winter special concludes with Jay O’Callahan’s story of the Voyager.
CURWOOD: You’re listening to a special storytelling edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Jay O’Callahan concludes his story, “Forged in the Stars.”
O’CALLAHAN: The next night, Friday night, Jack was in his apartment, there was a knock on the door – it was flung open! And in came Cynthia Moss, Kate’s best friend and apartment mate. Cynthia Moss was not to be trifled with. She came forward, eye-to-eye with Jack.
“Jack, I don’t know what went on between the two of you last night, but Kate is very upset, and she’s got the GREs tomorrow! I asked her ‘why, why’s she doing this with you?’ She said that for the first time, we can see the earth from afar and it’s tiny and precious. For the first time, we see the solar system from afar, tiny and precious. For the first time, we’re stretching into the universe. She said that if we could take that in, no telling how big our vision might become.’ I just want to know, what are you gonna do Sunday night at MIT, Jack?!”
“Well, Cynthia, for your information, I might read a complete list of the accomplishments of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and explain a few even in a way that you can understand them!”
“You condescending ass! What happened to you? You used to be such fun, Jack. You’d come up the stairs singing; we’d call you the Pavarotti lobsterman. I know what you’re going to do at MIT Sunday night, you’re gonna come out on the stage with your tweed jacket and your fake half glasses, you’re gonna hide behind the podium, you’re gonna stutter ‘til we’re sorry for you, then you’re going to bore us. I’m bringing celery. You bore us, I’m gonna eat the celery. And if you dare to condescend, I will throw the celery at you. Don’t ruin this for Kate!”
Sunday night at MIT, quarter of seven, Kate peeked out and there was a good house including college students, high school students. She was nervous but excited. She felt she'd done well on the GREs. Kate won the audience over telling them about being five-years-old and her dad saying, “Kate, the blackness and the stars are not just above us, they're all around us, Kate. All around us." And then the audience was intrigued to hear about the vision of a five-year-old, Cherokee boy. Kate told the story, then she told them J.C. High Eagle was an engineer 40 years at NASA and had established a foundation to encourage Native Americans to become engineers, scientists.
They had no idea how difficult that first moon landing was. And more important, they didn't realize people all around the world said, "We did it!" And they realized this was NASA’s accomplishment, but it’s also humanity’s accomplishment. And finally they were honored, she told the truth about Christa and the Challenger.
And now, it’s up to Jack. Jack came out on the stage, tweed jacket, half glasses, stood behind the podium.
"L-l-ladies and gentlemen, I may read a complete list of the accomplishments of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory." He took off the half glasses, he took off the jacket, he stepped in front of the podium.
"Sounds wicked borin', doesn't it? My first memory of the stars was when I was five or six with my granddad on a lobster boat, four in the morning, way off Portland, Maine. My granddad said, 'Some people go to offices. My office mates are the stars.' My granddad taught me celestial navigation and I found out I was good with numbers. My dad taught me about piloting. Physics is the push and pull of things, it’s like lobstering – you push the pot out, you pull it in. You got to pay attention in both. I'm going to tell you one – one story about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And I chose this because it's a marriage of imagination and science. That's what NASA does best: imagination and science.
My story begins 1965, early in space exploration, with a fellow named Gary Flandro. Caltech student, he was also working for J.P.L. So, he’s in the office, 'My gosh!' he says. He realizes the outer planets, the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – are gonna be lined up on one side of the sun in a way they will not been lined up again for 176 years. They have not been lined up this way since Jefferson's time.
And Flandro thinks, 'This is a time for a Grand Tour of the Outer Planets.' He knows all about gravity assist, meaning you get a spacecraft come up behind a planet and the gravity of the planet flings it forward at a tremendous speed. A Grand Tour. Now remember this is 1965, early in space exploration. Mars is closest to earth it's thirty-five million miles. When you are talking about Neptune, you're talking about two and a half billion miles. Is this possible, nobody knows! And Congress says, ‘It's too expensive. Cut it back! Maybe you can go to Jupiter and Saturn.
That's it. No Grand Tour.' So, the engineers and scientists get busy, and they’re very careful because what if they’re so good – the space craft called the Voyagers, very small, they weigh eighteen hundred pounds and got a great big – looks like a television disk. What if they build them so carefully they do get to Jupiter, Saturn and go on to Uranus.
1977, they got to be launched. That’s where imagination comes in. Carl Sagan, the astronomer, says, "Why not send a message with these Voyagers?' What kind of message? He talks to Louis Thomas, a biologist and Thomas says, 'Why not send all of Bach?' And Thomas says, 'No, that would be boasting.' Sound, the idea of sending sound. How would we do it? ‘On a copper record that would last at last a million years. The color will be gold, we'll call it the Golden Record.’
What sounds? We’ll send hello in 55 languages. Hello. And sounds of the earth. Yes! Yes! Frogs, and whales and insects and wind and thunder, and a kiss and the cry of a baby and Morse code, and music – Beethoven, and Bach and Mozart. Then, they call across the country to the World Music Center and Mr. Brown says, 'You mean these two things are going to go to the stars? Then you've got to send Kesar Bai Kerkar.' 'Who's that?' 'Kesar Bai Kerkar. Born in Calcutta, beloved in India, get a record of her.'
Now, the door is opening to music of the world. Alan Lomax who spent his life collecting ethnic music, says, 'Listen to this. It’s a Bulgarian Shepherdess song.' Sound of people who’d had enough to eat for the first time. Now the door is flung open. Australian horn and totem music, pigmy girls' initiation song, Melanesian panpipes, Chinese Chin music, Japanese flute music. But all of this takes time, there’s three days left, the list has got to be closed.
They call across the country, 'Mr. Brown, we can't find a record of this woman, Kesar Bai Kerkar.’ 'Find it!' They can't, they've tried everything.
Two days left. They call, Mr. Brown, 'Find it!' So someone calls Indian restaurants all over, and one of them says, 'Yes, yes. In New York City, Lexington Avenue in the twenties, there's an appliance store run by an Indian family.
Go into the appliance store and you will see a card table with a madras cover. Underneath the card table is a carton, in the carton is a record of her singing that song.' They get it! And President Carter sends a message. He says, 'This is a present from our small planet.' Maybe we're growing up – I say to myself, instead of taking from the universe we're giving something back.
So in August 1977, the first of the Voyagers lifts off. September the second, with 55 hellos: bonjour, ciao, ni hao, shalom, hello, hello, we want to say hello! We want to say hello to you!
1979, a flyby – Voyager One flying by Jupiter, the scientists excited. They discover that one of Jupiter's moons, Io, is the most volcanic body in the solar system. It's turning itself inside out; it's the Maria Callas of the solar system.
And Europa, another moon of Jupiter has a crust of ice, but underneath that crust of ice may be a salt sea bigger than the Atlantic and Pacific put together. There may be life. The Voyagers sail on: Hello, hello!
Saturn and then Uranus – Uranus, four exciting days looking down at Uranus, this blue-green pearl of a planet. January 24th to 28th 1986, and on the fourth day, January 28th, on the East coast, the Challenger explodes.
The Voyagers sails on. The Berlin Wall falls. The Voyagers sails on. Hello, hello! Nelson Mandela released from prison after twenty-seven years, the Voyagers sail on.
Hello, hello! Two Russians and one American live 136 days in space, living in space has begun, cooperating in space has begun.
Hello, hello! We want to say hello! The Hubble Telescope is launched, blurred vision. Joke of late night television. The blurred vision is corrected and through the Hubble we see objects 12 billion light years away. We see the dance of the universe as it's never been seen and the Voyagers sails on.
Hello, hello! We want to say hello! We want to say hello to you! February 14th, 1990, Voyager Two is beyond Pluto, sends back a photo of our solar system. In that photo the earth is the size of the eye of a goldfish. It's a speck. And on that speck is everything we love, and the Voyagers sails on.
Hello, hello - The Clinton years, Princess Diana dies. The year 2000, my dad, a lobsterman, got off his lobster boat, crosses the street he collapsed; he was dead of heart attack. My dad and I, we had our ups and downs but I loved my dad. I am shaken. And the Voyagers sails on. 9/11, the whole country is shaken. And the Voyagers sails on.
Hello, hello. I want to say hello.
2003, I come to MIT wondering am I good enough to get a PhD? I’m scared to death. I meet a young woman, an engineering student; we fall in love and the Voyagers sails on.
Hello, hello! I want to say hello! 2004, two rovers set down on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. They’re expected to go three months and then stop because their solar panels will be covered with dust. Surprise! The wind on Mars blows the dust off. Spirit and Opportunity are going as I speak.
Hello, hello! The spacecraft Cassini begins to orbit Saturn. We see the rings in Saturn as clearly as you see the grooves in a record. It’s a pilot project of NASA, European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.
Hello, hello! I get engaged. I'm a stuffed shirt and she calls it off and the Voyagers sails on.
Hello, hello! My left fist is the sun. My right fist is the earth, 93 million miles away. The Voyagers are not even in the room – they’re downtown. The Voyagers are ten billion miles from the sun. I'm sure you all know about the solar wind. It's really particles, streaming out from the sun at a million miles an hour and more. It forms a great bubble our whole solar system is in. Some people call it a heliosphere, bubble’s a much better term.
In six or seven years, the Voyagers are going to leave the bubble, go into inter stellar space. They’re gonna reach the Ort cloud in the year 26,000. They gonna make the closest approach to the star Sirius in the year 296,036, and they’re gonna pass the twelve nearest stars in the year 1,000,000. And who knows, maybe some civilization will find one of the Voyagers and play the Golden Record and they'll hear Kesar Bai Kerkar. They’ll hear pigmy girls' initiation song, Melanesian panpipes and they will hear Louis Armstrong, Navaho Night Chant. They'll hear Chuck Barry, they'll hear Beethoven, and Bach, and Stravinsky. And they'll hear Blind Willy Johnson singing Dark was the Night.
And maybe they'll say, 'These beins' want to dance.' And I think that would be just right because it seems to me what we've been doing the last 50 years is we've been dancing our way into the universe."
Jack finished. There was silence. And then an explosion of applause. Cynthia leapt up with her green wig, and her celery fell off her lap. She ran up and threw her arms around Jack. It was three weeks later that Jack picked Kate up and they went down to Gloucester.
He borrowed his friend’s lobster boat, and they went way, way out to sea. The stars were brilliant. The sea was calm. He took her by the shoulders, and said "Kate, the stars and the blackness are not just above us, Kate, they're all around us, Kate."
"Jack, they're inside us. All of the molecules in our bodies were forged billions of years ago in generations of stars. Jack, lets get married."
"You serious, Kate?"
"Of course, I’m serious. I'm scared, but I love you; we’ll work it out. I've even thought about the wedding food. I want to have pizza and éclairs. And, Jack, I want to be married on Mars."
"Well, Kate, I'll take you there on my lobster boat. What do you think of that?"
"Jack that would be perfect. And why not? Why not? Why not?"
CURWOOD: Storyteller Jay O’Callahan with his NASA-commissioned story, “Forged in the Stars.” I want to thank you, again, Jay, thanks.
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