rocket to russia

The past two weeks have been exciting, with lots of information in. I’ve learned so many new things I’ve gone into a cataloguing mode, rearranging everything I know.

Time moves like a river.

AGU Leader

I stumbled into this data-heavy phase innocently enough, or so it seemed; I became engaged by a story that Andy Ingersoll told last year about the Pioneer 11 encounter with Saturn.

It went like this. Back in 1979, in the height of the Cold War, NASA turned out to need unexpected assistance from the Soviets – we had to ask them to turn off an array of Earth-orbiting satellites for four days, so we could get our data down from the Pioneer craft, reporting in from Saturn. The request had to go to the very top in the USSR, but they did it, and it was all very Top Secret; even the scientists didn’t know.

As each of our countries at that time was bristling with missiles, warheads, spies, and Evil Empire propaganda (in the 1970s, as a kid, I lived only one mile from a Titan missile pointed at Moscow) I thought the story was ripe with metaphor; good people were working together to do good work, in spite of the absurdity, the extremity of the conflict. So I started asking questions, looking for markers.

Imagine my surprise to find that hidden inside the wrapper of the overstory was a quantum drone full of puzzle pieces from my own life. The minute I opened Andy’s story, the packet of facts cruised out like a virus, set up a dot matrix printer on the dining room table of my soul, and started printing (loudly, and on greenbar paper of course) fascinating bits of backstory, some of it intensely personal.

This exploration feels like interactive theater; behind each door, under each ashtray, and written inside certain matchbook covers (which I have to find) are clues, and the clues change with each intermission.

I spent about four hours last week talking to my friend Don Davis (the planetary scientist, not the space painter) and he said something near the end of our conversation that floored me.

He said, “I wish I could live long enough to find out if we evolve to be God, or gods.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “Well, what if we evolve our understanding of creation to be able to create universes?” I said, “Or life.” And he said, “Life, pffft, that’s just chemistry. Universes, that’s something.”

He thought for a moment, and said, “Imagine if we finally got a visit from a spacecraft, or met our Creator, and it was us. As you say, time is not a string.”

 Pioneer 11 by Don Davis for NASA
Pioneer 10/11, illustration by the other Don Davis / NASA

The flashy new movie theater of my own memory has celebrated the visit of my own personal spacecraft by putting on a retrospective; I watch, entranced, as film rolls from every quadrant. I’ve been asking questions all of my life, and if I’ve not exactly remembered all of the answers, I’ve filed them somewhere. I’ve always felt that anything that goes in will absorb; I try to be careful; I have a very “you are what you eat” sense about data in.

These new pieces, some small, some huge, reveal the system of my own life as much as it does the moment in time. So much was happening in 1979; I was 16 and I had just found my freedom as a freshman at the University of Arizona.

The arms race was insane (and of course it still is, just differently so), space missions were thick in the air, and debate about nuclear weaponry and technology was raging. In the month of September alone (the month that Pioneer 11 needed Soviet help) there were nine nuclear tests and two huge anti-nuclear protests (the MUSE concerts at Madison Square Garden and the rally in Brooklyn fronted by Jane Fonda, each of which drew several hundred thousand people).

Earlier that summer, Edward Teller, already upset about the movie The China Syndrome (which was about a nuclear accident and starred Fonda) took out a two-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that he was the only casualty of the March accident at Three Mile Island. To quote, “…I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.” 

Jane Fonda has had to put up with a lot from boorish men; I didn’t realize that she’d had to bear Edward Teller as well as Ted Turner.

Roald Sagdeev, a remarkable Russian scientist now living in the US, and someone who was pointed out to me by Andy as a person who might help understand how the Soviet satellite shutdown worked from their side, turned out to be a soulmate. He spent years of his life trying to bring sense to the SDI/Star Wars madness that had overtaken the American administrations of both Reagan and Bush. He told me about one of the times he provided a counterpoint to Teller’s Strangelovian views:

“Once, around 1989, I flew to Amsterdam to speak on one of Dutch TV channels. That followed an interview they took of Edward Teller. Before giving me a chance to speak, the Dutch started with video of Teller at his house. And he was playing Mozart on the piano. Then my spontaneous reaction at the beginning of interview was genuine astonishment: why Mozart? It had to be Salieri.”

Anyway, I’m here at CalTech for a few days catching up with Andy, updating him on what I’ve learned, and I’ll have more to tell soon enough. I’ve loved the time spent with him, puzzling over human nature.

We’ve been running around in our present state, hoping help would come from above,
but even angels make the same mistakes…

4 thoughts on “rocket to russia

  1. Your “Love Letters” book is taking you to new frontiers. I am so proud of you and love to read about the information and revelations that you are mining and sifting through. For me, the moral of the story is, be nice to people, you might need them someday.

  2. “Imagine if we finally got a visit from a spacecraft, or met our Creator, and it was us. As you say, time is not a string.”

    Yes, I think that’s the way it must be. And put so simply too.

    I love your writing, Kate. It is a direct education.

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