My initial response to Space Cat Press’s call out for Uncharted Constellations was ‘meh’. I write about people rather than places so the idea of writing about space didn’t appeal. Even when I wrote a poem about one of Uranus’ moons, ‘Miranda’, I personified her. It didn’t really help that space had a very male image: the astronauts involved in the moon landing, Tim Peake being described as the ‘first British astronaut’ when Helen Sharman had beat him to it, and the sparse lists of female astronauts.
The first was Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6 in 1963. There was a big gap before the second Svetlana Savitskaya on Soyuz T-7 in 1982. The first American was Sally Ride in 1983 on the seventh space shuttle mission. The first British astronaut Helen Sharman in 1991, followed by Canadian Roberta Bondar in 1992, Chiaki Mukai of India in 1994, Claudie Haigneré from France in 1996, Iranian Anousheh Ansari 2005, Yi So-yeon of South Korea 2008, Naoko Yamazaki of Japan in 2010, Liu Yang of China in 2012 and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti 2014 all firsts of their respective countries. An all-female spacewalk was delayed when NASA didn’t have enough spacesuits of the right size.
Women have made about 11% of people who’ve made it into space. Despite this, it actually makes more sense to put women in space. Generally they’re smaller and lighter which means they use up fewer resources – not critical in a short trip but on a long mission could prove vital – on average men required around 20% more calories a day and woman expend less than half the calories of men despite similar activity levels. Smaller people also produce less waste (not just food waste but also carbon dioxide which has to be recycled or junked). For reasons not yet fully examined, women suffer less eyesight deterioration than men. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly observed in his autobiography that if the reasons for deteriorating eyesight can’t be fixed, it would be best to send an all-women crew to Mars. Women tend to do better in longer-term, habitation type circumstances whereas men tend to excel in shorter-term, goal-orientated situations; much of this is down to societal schooling, but it does make sense for men to aim for the moon and women for Mars.
The first moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969 had three male astronauts. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously walked on the moon while Michael Collins stayed in orbit on the Olympia. Women weren’t in the headlines, but they did enable Apollo 11’s landing and we didn’t really find out much about them until 2016 and the film ‘Hidden Figures’ by which time two of the three figures, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, had passed away. The third, Katherine Johnson, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 and now has a building named after her at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Her love of mathematics started with her love of counting, even as a young girl she counted everything: steps to school, dishes in the cupboard, stars in the sky. After graduating high school, she entered West Virginia State where her mentor, a doctorate in mathematics, conceived special classes for her and suggested she became a research mathematician. Katherine Johnson graduated with a double major in mathematics and French but unable to find work as a research mathematician, she took a job teaching until she saw a recruitment advertisement from the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She was accepted but soon seconded to the Flight Research Division where her primary job was to calculate aerodynamic forces, initially on aeroplanes but eventually on spacecraft. Although NASA used electronic computers – mathematicians such as Katherine Johnson were nicknamed computers – astronauts still wanted humans to check the electronics. John Glenn famously requested Katherine Johnson check the calculations for his flights, ‘if she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go.’
When talking about her work, Katherine Johnson describes working backwards. She started where Apollo 11 was to land and worked backwards to calculate the angle and timing of take-off, the trajectory, the aerodynamics, etc. Then she’d work forwards from take-off to landing to double-check. This seems not unlike a writer creating a story arc. An initial draft sets out where the characters need to go (where the rocket needs to land) and then the edit takes the writer back through the story to ensure the characters and events lead the reader to the destination.
This forward and reverse motion lends itself to the specular or verbal mirror image form in poetry, created by Julia Copus. Specular poems are typically one stanza that can be read from first line to final line or from final line to first line. Rocket launches count down from ten to one, so it was logical to start from the destination (adulthood) and countdown to origin (childhood). Format established, I wrote the poem. Rather than cram the achievements of a 101-year life span into one stanza, I split the poem into parts, each corresponding to the countdown from ten. This created a new challenge: I not only had to check that each part could be read as a specular but also the whole poem. Did I succeed? Read Uncharted Constellations to find out.
A natural focus on marginalised voices didn’t mean I overlooked the men altogether. My poem ‘What they were hired to do’, takes Michael Collins’s quote ‘Heroes abound, but don’t count astronauts among them’ and considers what it might have been like to be the man whose name is usually forgotten. Like Katherine Johnson, Michael Collins considered that he was only doing his job. But his job involved factoring in how he could return to earth alone if Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong didn’t make it back to the shuttle after their moonwalk.
Check out Emma’s reading of ‘What became of the girl who counted’ here.