Forged in the Stars/ Jay O’Callahan
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Living on Earth is proud to present storyteller Jay O'Callahan's new work "Forged in the Stars." O'Callahan was commissioned to write "a love letter to NASA" in honor of the nation's space agency's 50th anniversary. "Forged in the Stars" is the result of almost two years of research, including interviews with astronauts, engineers, and many other NASA employees. (12:20)
Forged in the Stars/ Jay O’Callahan
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Forged in the Stars continues with the stories of Neil Armstrong and Christa McAuliffe. (18:10)
Forged in the Stars/ Jay O’Callahan
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Living on Earth’s winter special concludes with Jay O’Callahan’s story of the Voyager. (16:20)
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUEST: Jay O’Callahan
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. And no, it’s not our regular music this week because this is our winter, storytelling special. Today’s story celebrates fifty years of space exploration with a love letter to NASA.
O’CALLAHAN: 1977, the first of the Voyagers lifts off, September the 2nd, with fifty-five hellos, bon jour, ciao, ni hao, shalom…hello, hello, we want to say hello, want to say hello to you! 1979, a fly-by Voyager went flying by Jupiter – the scientists are excited. They discover one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, it’s the most volcanic body in the solar system. It’s turning itself inside out; it’s the Maria Callas of the solar system.
CURWOOD: Jay O’Callahan tells a story of America in space. It’s “Forged in the Stars” on this week’s Living on Earth - stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Frasier Performance Studios at WGBH Boston, this is a special holiday edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
When NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – began its countdown to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the space agency made special contact with renowned storyteller Jay O’Callahan, and handed him this mission, should he choose to accept it. Write a love letter to NASA.
Well, enamored with space exploration, as many of us are, Jay was not only honored, but also game. He spent a year and a half studying astronomy and interviewing current and retired NASA personnel all across the country.
And now, Living on Earth is thrilled to present for our winter storytelling special, Jay O’Callahan and the broadcast performance of his love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars.” Welcome, Jay.
O’CALLAHAN: T minus five, four, three, two, one. [Whooshing sound]
Liftoff! We have liftoff! About eighteen months ago I was in a conference room at NASA Headquarters, Washington DC. I was excited because I’d been commissioned to create this story about NASA’s 50th anniversary. And Ed Hoffman who directs a leadership program, said, your job is to write a love letter.
How do you write a love letter to an administration? But still it was freeing. I flew off to Johnson Space Center, Houston – manned flight. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California – unmanned flight.
And I wondered, will they be patient for these interviews? Scientists, astronauts, engineers – they were not only patient, they’re in love with their work. They loved to talk. I came home with a thousand pages of interviews, emails. Taking this course in astronomy, reading 30 books, what's the story?
Then, I remembered one of the interviews at Johnson Space Center, with interns. These are young people – college students who are at NASA, college, all the way through. This fellow, Cecil Shy Jr. – he was wiry young fellow – he said, "When I was a kid I loved to make toy cars with motors. I was good at it.
When I was in high school there was a career night,” he said. “And there was a model of the Mars rover. And I said, 'I can do that.' Why not?" And then Cecil said, "I think of kids all over the world going to sleep looking at the stars thinking, 'I want to go there.' " And Cecil says, "Why not?"
And I loved that, "Why not?" Why not make a love story. Everyone I interviewed said they loved working at NASA. I thought, I'll invent two characters. They sprang to mind, Kate and Jack. In love, but something’s gone wrong. And they will tell true stories of NASA.
And so, my love letter to NASA is, “Forged in the Stars”.
The time, late October 2007. The place is Boston, Massachusetts. On a bright, windy Friday morning in late October, a young woman, Kate DeCordova was running down the sloping sidewalk. She had a Red Sox cap on, her black hair streaming out behind, she was singing, "Here comes the sun."
Checked her watch, eight-thirty.
As long as she made the next trolley to Boston, she'd be on time for mechanical engineering. No one was late for mechanical engineering. As she ran she smelled some of the salt air. It reminded her last night she’s been putting some salt in the boiling spaghetti water, her apartment mate, best friend, Cynthia Moss was listening to Blind Willy Johnson singing Dark is the Night, and the phone had rung.
"Kkkkate, iiit's Jack."
She was shocked, delighted. Jack Carver. Six months ago last April she had called their engagement off – here he was on the phone.
"Kkate, something exciting has happened."
Jack Carver, son of a Maine lobsterman, Jack, big powerful guy, getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics at MIT, but when he was nervous or excited he stuttered.
"Kate you know the MIT Sunday Science Series? A Russian scientist can't make it, so my thesis advisor thought you and I could do the program on NASA. It's their 50th. You know it’s our generation. You've been an intern four times, Kate, there and he's going to get the Globe."
"Jack, you don't have to talk me into this. This is great! When is it?"
"Sunday, three weeks from now."
"I can't, Jack. I've got the graduate record exams that Saturday. I’m sorry; I can't study, and prepare a program. Sorry."
As she ran this morning the trolley passed her by. It stopped twenty yards ahead. She had to get that trolley, so she lengthened her stride. Ten yards from the trolley a yellow maple leaf came down, she reached out, the wind took it up, and she took a chance. And she leapt way up and caught it! She sprinted but the driver was closing the door. Someone said, "Wait!" Kate leapt onto the trolley. She got out her cell phone, she called Jack.
"Jack, it’s Kate. I've changed my mind. I'll do the program at MIT."
"Great, great great! What happened?"
"I caught a leaf. Never mind. We’ll get Cynthia to come."
“Don’t get Cynthia, she’ll cause trouble. She still wearing the green wig?”
“She wears it to earth science class. Jack, listen, what am I supposed to do?”
"All right, my thesis advisor saw that play you wrote. He said you come at a slant. You do three twelve-minute sections, manned space. I will finish with a lecture, twenty minutes, unmanned space."
"All right, Jack. Next three Thursdays, come to my apartment, seven o’clock. We'll run things back and forth."
Then she thought of what Jack said, that he would give a twenty-minute lecture. One of the reasons she cut off the engagement is because Jack had turned into a critical bore. Just around the time he got that tweed jacket. She hated that tweed jacket. She got busy emailing friends, professors, NASA colleagues – asked one question: What do you remember most about NASA?
Thursday night came; Jack was coming up three flights of stairs. An apartment in Jamaica Plain. Kate was nervous in the kitchen because Jack could be so critical.
“Oh, Jack, I’m in the kitchen”
Oh, how do you greet your former lover? Peck on the cheek? A hug?
There was Jack. His old windbreaker. Luckily, he brought supper; there was a pizza box between them.
"Thank you, Jack, thanks. Sit down. We’ll have the pizza later, Jack. I want to start right away.
So, imagine, Jack, I’m looking at the audience, I’m going to say to them:
I'm an engineering student. I'm going to get a Ph.D. and I hope to work for NASA. I grew up in Oklahoma. When I was five years old, my dad and I were standing under the stars. And my dad, usually a very practical man, he ran a hardware store, he said, "Kate, the blackness and the stars are not just above us, Kate, they're all around us, Kate. The earth's just a ball moving in the blackness. The stars are all around us." Well I've never forgotten that moment. I'm going to tell you three stories of NASA. This is the first story.
In 1948, in a working class neighborhood in Oklahoma City, a five-year-old boy ran into the kitchen. "Mom, I heard a voice. Coming from way up by the sun."
"What did it say?"
"It said I'm going to help people get to the moon."
She said, "That's a vision, J.C."
And she said that's a vision because they were Cherokee, Osage. Their story was they had come from the sky to the earth.
"You'll have to work for it, J.C."
His Cherokee name was J.C. High Eagle. His name in the white world, Jerry Elliott. Working for the vision meant being good at physics and mathematics. He did very well in high school. 1961, eighteen-years-old, J.C. High Eagle went to the University of Oklahoma. He was excited – physics and mathematics. And he found that many of the students didn't want him there.
"What's the Indian kid doing here?"
Many of the professors did not want him.
"Listen you're a fine young man and it's not your fault. What nature hands out, gives indiscriminately, and your people don't have the mental capacity to be engineers and scientists."
That hurt, but he had the vision, he stayed with it. He did well. 1966, he decided to go to graduate school, but there was no money now. His stepfather had died. So, this young man, J.C. High Eagle went down to the police station in Norman, Oklahoma and said, "I want to be a policeman." They gave him a test. He scored as high as anybody's ever scored. He became a fulltime policeman and deputy sheriff, which meant he could take two courses a semester.
Nine in the morning, ten in the morning was electrical engineering. He would wear his uniform to class with a loaded gun. But it was Oklahoma.
One day his mother called, "There’s a telegram for you."
"The draft board. You have to report for the physical."
He passed. Another telegram.
"Open it, Mom."
"You have to report to boot camp in fifteen days. That means Vietnam. Call your grandfather."
He called his grandfather, a wise old man at his wheat farm, "Granddad, it’s J.C. I'm going to boot camp in fifteen days."
"They won't take you."
"No, I've got the piece paper."
"I don't believe in paper. They won’t take you. Had a hard time getting the calf born last night. I had to hitch the tractor up to get the calf –"
"Granddad, I'm going to boot camp, fifteen days."
"They won't take you. Let me tell you about the calf."
He went on and on about the calf. J.C. was furious, he said to his mother, "He said they won't take me, went on and on about the calf."
"He's my dad. I'm with him."
Fifteen days turned into fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten. Nine days, J.C. finished electrical engineering, coming down the corridor; students were outside the dean's office in a line. And there was a sign: NASA INTERVIEWING TODAY. NASA!
He got in line and said to the student in front of him, "What ya got?"
"You've got to have a NASA application, government application and a resume or they won't talk to you."
He’s got none of that. The line melts; he steps in in his uniform. The NASA man says, “I got a plane to catch, what do you want, officer?"
“I want to put people on the moon."
He looks at this cop.
"I'm working my way through grad school."
"Write down your name, your address. Don't call us, we'll call you," the NASA man is gone.
[MUSIC: Timewarp Inc “Alone and Nowhere (nubeat)” from ‘Dub My Funky Groove’ (Timewarp Music – 2005)]
CURWOOD: We’ll be back with storyteller Jay O’Callahan. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth’s winter storytelling special. I’m Steve Curwood. And now, Jay O’Callahan continues his love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars.”
O’CALLAHAN: Six days to boot camp. Five days, four days, his mother called and said, "J.C., there’s a man, Bernie Goodwin from NASA, he said he’d talk to you. Here's his number. Call him."
He calls Bernie Goodwin.
"J.C. High Eagle”
“I looked into your record, you are a brilliant young man, J.C. You're full of fire. You're the kind of person we need. In fact I’d like you to start Monday morning, manned space center, Houston."
"Why, the draft?"
"Yes, sir, the draft."
"Well, J.C., you're a policeman, you know possession is nine tenths of the law. You come, we posses you."
He goes home and tells his mother and she says, "Call your grandfather."
"I told you they wouldn't take you."
J.C. gets his guitar, borrows his mother’s car, he heads to Houston. He's thinking Granddad must have negotiated a different fate for me with the Almighty.
He is hired Monday morning as an engineer. Few weeks go by and Chris Kraft who becomes the famed flight director, got a big cigar, comes over, "How do you like it here, son?"
"I love it, I love it. One thing though."
"I'm used to reading books to learn. What should I read?"
"Son, we don't read books here, we write them."
Soon enough, J.C. High Eagle is writing the Agena Systems Handbook. J.C. High Eagle is an engineer is in the flight control center for all of the Apollo missions. He is helping get people to the moon.
Kate took a breath and said, “Jack, that's the story. He achieved his vision, Jack. Now tell me, what did you love about the story?"
Jack said, "Well, one thing is it’s too dramatic."
"Oh, tell me what else did you love about the story, Jack?"
"Alright, I'm sorry, Kate, I'm sorry. I liked the grandfather part. Only reason I'm at MIT is because of my granddad. I mentioned grad school once to my dad. He said, 'you won't fit in, Jack, you won't fit in. You're not their people, you won't fit in.' So I went to granddad, he said, 'Jack go to grad school. If you learn enough you can take your lobster boat to the stars.' So here I am, Kate, still trying to fit in. Let's have the pizza. Oh Kate, next Thursday do me a favor, Kate, don't be dramatic."
The following Thursday, Jack was coming up three flights of stairs. And Kate was very nervous because she knew she was going to be very dramatic. So, she thought about the best thing about Jack and the worst thing. And they both happened last April. Last April Jack took Kate to Gloucester, borrowed a friend’s lobster boat, they went way, way out to sea. The stars were bright, the seas were rough. This is Jack's world. Kate was terrified.
"Kate, Kate, I'm going to tell you a story that begins billions of years ago."
"Jack, condense the story. I’m scared, Jack."
"All right, Kate. You know Jupiter, Kate? Jupiter is so big you can put twelve hundred earths in the volume of Jupiter. You know the red spot on Jupiter, it’s a storm that’s been raging three hundred years, it's twice the size of the earth. The first time I saw you, I had a red spot in my heart. I love you! Marry me!"
Well, of course she said yes. Two days later they were stuck in traffic in East Cambridge going to a departmental party. Jack hated those; he had the tweed jacket on.
Kate said, "I love that because of the solar wind the whole solar system is in a bubble.”
"Kate, it is a hel-li-o-sphere. Hel-li-o-sphere. Not a bubble. Get the language right. Grow up!"
"Jack, we have talked about that tone of voice for a year. I'll take the subway home. Here's your ring. It won't work!"
She got out and slammed the door. She was on that when Jack came into the kitchen with the old windbreaker.
"Kate, I was thinking something."
"You brought éclairs! Thank you, Jack. Sit down, Jack. I’m going to do a scene; I think you’re going to love it. I want Armstrong to tell a story so I've invented someone to tell it to."
"You invented a character!"
"Jack, it's a literary device to help me tell the story. This is the idea. Armstrong's going into a nursing home, there’s an old man in a wheelchair. He’s all bent over. He's a retired Admiral. He's a friend of Armstrong's. Armstrong has come several times, but now the Admiral has no idea who Armstrong is, and the Admiral doesn't talk anymore. The Admiral's wife, a retired professor, asked Armstrong to give it one more try.
“Admiral Armstrong reporting for duty, sir! Admiral? Armstrong reporting for duty, sir.”
The old man lifts his head up a little, a little more.
“Yes, sir. In North Korea, sir. I was down 500 feet once, sir, and my wing got sliced off. I had to eject. The only reason I’m here, sir, is the wind blew me into a rice paddy instead of the sea.”
“Now, what’s your last assignment?”
“Moon? Where’s that?”
“The moon, sir. The moon. Three of us, up to the moon in three days, sir. Michael Collins, Buzz Aldren and I. The question is, can we land on the moon? So, two of us – Buzz and I – we float into this lunar module."
"Lunar module, what kind of plane is that?"
"It's an unusual flying machine. It's like a cockpit: switches, gages everywhere. And the walls, they're no thicker than a sheet of aluminum foil. Triangular window for me, one for Buzz. We’re 50,000 feet above the moon and we’re harnessed to the floor, standing."
"Why are you standing?"
"Two chairs, sir, would weight 600 pounds. The lighter we are, less fuel. Or I should say, Tom Stafford, two months before he was 50,000 feet above the moon.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Stafford, I know that name, Stafford. Academy?
“His mother, Stafford’s mother, came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon, you know that?
“I did not, sir. Well, Stafford didn’t land, Admiral because his lunar module was too heavy. So, Buzz and I go down forty thousand feet and then were lurching like that, sir. Like a drunk, like a drunk, sir. The radar kicked in, the computer doesn’t agree. The radar’s right and Buzz is trying to get the computer to agree, so we're lurching and then: bzzzzzzzz. This is a master alarm, sir, this is serious. It could be an abort. Houston says it's a go on that alarm so down we go, sir.
And now, the problems snowballed. Our computer, Admiral, is cutting out so Houston’s getting nothing. They need crucial information, then it cuts back in, cuts out. They get just enough information. Down we go, sir. We get down seventy-five hundred feet, we tilt like this – Admiral, I can see the Sea of Tranquility. Seventy-five hundred feet. We get down 3,000 feet, sir. We're going slow, now 48 miles an hour. A thousand feet and we are in trouble. The computer is flying us blindly into a crater. Big as a soccer field, sir. We're going to bust up, sir because of the rocks there. So I take over flying."
"About time, Armstrong."
"So I'm flying, we call it the Eagle, sir. I get down two hundred twenty feet; I’m skimming over these boulders, looking for a place to land. There's a place, no it's no good. My heart is pounding. Ninety seconds of fuel. Then I find a place over here. 60 seconds of fuel. We’re at 100 feet. The rocket blast is stirring up the dust, and I can’t see, Admiral. 30 seconds of fuel. We get down to 50 feet, Admiral, and now we’re drifting backwards, I don’t know why and I’m wrestling with a sideways motion, we’re going down slower and slower! The contact light is on. We are on the moon. I turned to Buzz, we haven't shaved in days, got these bubble helmets and we shake hands.
'Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.'”
"Then we're supposed to go to sleep."
"Sleep, man, you're on the moon!"
"Exactly, sir, we couldn’t go to sleep, we ask permission to go out there. They said fine. It takes a long time, there's a check off list and you got this oxygen pack. So I'm doing that and I look up. There's a circular window, I look up and way up there – there is the earth the size of a silver dollar. It’s blue and it’s white and it’s beautiful. I put on these boots to give me traction and I thought about what I might say."
"You hadn't thought about it?"
"I'm a pilot, Admiral, the way you were. My job is to land and to get up, it's not to say something. So finally I'm ready to open the hatch."
"I wouldn't want to be on the moon."
"Why's that, Admiral?"
"No, sir, it's a vacuum."
"I made a joke, I made a joke. You've got no sense of humor. Go ahead."
"I opened the hatch, Admiral, I pulled a D-ring and so the television camera is on. Hundreds of millions of people all over the earth are watching. It’s awkward, I have to back out. It’s a sixth gravity, so I don’t weigh much, but it's awkward. I go down the ladder, and the last rung it’s a three-foot jump. The Eagle has these four legs and at the bottom of each leg, what we call a pad. It's like a big, shallow soup bowl. The Eagle has four legs; they didn't collapse because we had landed so gently. So I jumped three feet down, and I jumped back up to make sure I can do it. I jump back on the pad, I’m holding on to the ladder. One of the scientists said the moon dust might be a mile deep. I don't want to go down a mile. So, I put one foot on the moon, it's solid.
'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'
"What would you have said, sir?"
"Well, my wife's likes Thoreau. He said something like, 'I didn't come to change things, I came to wake the neighbors up.' "
"That would have been very good, Admiral, very good. I put both hands on the landing gear then I put my second foot on the moon. Then, I let go."
"That took guts, that took guts, Armstrong. My wife, Cigna, she wants to talk to you."
The Admiral's wife, maybe ten years younger, a beautiful woman, she said, "Neil, I remember the day the three of you lifted. I'll never forget it. The sound, but mostly that white fire that lifted you. You know what I think that fire was made of? I think – no, I don't mean combustion. I think it was made of the passion, and the effort, the courage of six hundred thousand people, the scientists, the engineers, the secretaries, the managers. And the fire that lifted you off, I think it was made of the hopes of hundreds of millions of people all over the world that you’d make it. That fire was made by scientists, by Einstein, but it was also made by every child who's ever wondered where does a frog go in the winter? And how could there be a bit of red and green inside an icicle? Why does a crow sound different from a blue jay? The fire that lifted you off was made by Amelia Earhart, and the Wright Brothers, and Lindberg, and Leonardo DaVinci. It was made by people all the way 40,000 years ago who took torches and went into caves and made paintings.”
"Yes, ma’am. And ma’am, we came back, NASA sent us to countries all over the world and people would run up, ma’am, and they would never say, 'you did it' they would say 'we did it, we did it!' "
"Well, Armstrong, you're a fine man. One thing though."
"Work on your sense of humor."
“My wife will see you out.”
They went out in the hall. "Neil, I felt his fire again today. Thank you."
"Well, Jack, that’s it, what do you think?"
"Kate, I asked last week not to be dramatic."
"Jack, I have studied some theatre and this is who I am, Jack. Now, run something by me, Jack."
"Kate, I’m not ready. I’m gonna run along."
"Well, take an éclair. I'll see you Thursday."
The next Thursday Jack came up into the kitchen, with his tweed jacket on. She said, “Jack, sit down. I'm gonna to run a short piece by, then you run all you want, all right? So this is what I'm gonna say, Jack. I’m gonna say…"
In 1951, in Columbia Point in Boston. There was a three-year-old girl on a tricycle. She was an adventurer. Her name was Christa…
“Jack, let me finish.”
Christa bounced onto the street; she was going to bike all the way to the big houses, far away! Well, a neighbor brought her home. Christa, very close to her dad, they loved music. When she was 21 she married Steve McAuliffe. Christa McAuliffe truly blossomed in her early-30s. She was teaching American History, Concord High School in New Hampshire. She was raising money for the hospital and the Y. She volunteered on the one hand to teach catechism, on the other for Planned Parenthood. But, her greatest focus was her children.
She wrote in her journal, ‘how can two kids be so different? Scott is five and he’s so sensitive. Last night he turned Sesame Street off because a cartoon cat was eating a cartoon mouse. And Caroline is three, she doesn’t ask, she demands!’ Christa McAuliffe applied to be the teacher in space. She wrote in her application, ‘I developed a course called the American Woman, and discovered that the journals of ordinary people tell a fuller story of history. And like the pioneers on the Conestoga wagons, I’ll keep a journal as a pioneer in space.’
Christa McAuliffe was chosen to be the teacher in space. The Challenger was to liftoff January 28th, 1986. The night before, there was a fierce argument among managers, engineers. And some of the engineers said, you cannot liftoff tomorrow! It’s going to be freezing in Florida! It’s got to be at least 53 degrees or o-rings might not expand, it’d be a catastrophe. The engineers were not listened to.
The next morning, January 28th, at eleven thirty-eight the Challenger lifted up. Standing there, Christa’s parents, they were freezing. They watched the Challenger lift up. It was magnificent. Ed Corrigan, Grace Corrigan watched it go up and up for a minute. And then, a flash of yellow and a fireball. And out of the fireball came debris from the Challenger. And then there was a tower of smoke and silence. And Ed Corrigan, Christa’s dad said, ‘She’s gone. She’s gone.’
Jack said, "Why the hell would you do that? We’ve got one hour, and no talking about death."
"Jack, I'm going to do Christa McAuliffe! Millions of people will never forget the moment she died, I’m going to talk about her. Jack, Christa is the ordinary person. She's all of us. Maybe the best of all of us, but I’m going to talk about her.
This is exploration, it’s dangerous. Magellan set out with five ships. He died along the way, did you know that? One of his ships got back. Jack, I have to have the courage to tell the truth. This is science!"
"Oh, ho, Kate's going to have the courage to tell the truth. Kate, we were in love two and a half years, you said, 'Here's your ring, Jack. It wouldn't work.' You didn't have the guts to talk it out. You didn’t have the guts!"
"Jack, I was scared. I am scared. Jack, my mother was eighteen, she was a brilliant pianist, thought she might be a great pianist. My dad said, 'Take a couple of years off, help me get the hardware store started.' She did, I was born, my brother was born. She never got back. You know, dad’s has had a terrible stroke; his mind doesn't work. He doesn't talk. She wheels him into the hardware store everyday. That's her life. And her one day at home, Sundays, she washes the walls. I think she does it to make them disappear, Jack."
"Kate, we're on Sunday, seven o'clock. So, be there at six o’clock for the sound check."
[MUSIC: Darcy James Argue “Redeye” from ‘Infernal Machines’ (New Amsterdam - 2009)]
CURWOOD: Find out what happens at MIT with Jack and Kate in just a few moments. We’ll be back with storyteller Jay O’Callahan. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living On Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living On Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
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.
CURWOOD: Our storytelling special today was recorded in WGBH’s Frasier Performance Studios. Our engineers are Jane Pipik and Jeff Turton. Eileen Bolinsky produced this program. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Quincy Campbell and Nirja Parekh. I’m Steve Curwood, thanks for listening. And from all of us here –
AUDIENCE: Happy Holidays!
[MUSIC: Various Artists/Bing Crosby “Happy Holidays (Beef Wellington Remix)” from ‘Christmas Remixed: Holiday Classics Re-Grooved’ (Rock River Music - 2006)]
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