Explorations: Where No Writing Has Gone Before

Explorations TextsI have elsewhere written about the experience of designing new academic modules (‘Teaching Irish Literature in a Time of Brexit’, Irish Times), but I think it is equally important to reflect on how academic modules evolve once they have come into contact with students. ‘Explorations: Where No Writing Has Gone Before’ is a second-year module that I developed over the past year and taught for the first time this semester. It offers students the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with a range of fictional and non-fictional material which takes as its subject the work of observing, interpreting, and articulating the exploration of the far reaches of this world and beyond. ‘Explorations’ originates in my interest in teaching about books by Apollo astronauts (a curious mixture of dry techne, memoir, travelogues, idiosyncratic treatises, and personal self-reflection, often co-written with Earthbound authors), but, while I may still do something with those texts in the future, they would, inappropriately for a university module in 2019, create an all-male reading list. So instead I took the idea at the heart of space exploration – voyages of discovery – and traced it backwards to the start of the modern scientific age, combined it with fictional representations of the same, and constructed a module around the idea of exploration in its positive and negative connotations.

Lectures and discussions were arranged in pairs of geographically themed two-week units, in each case looking at points of contact between one factual and one fictional text. In the course of the semester we examined writing about the South American Southern Cone and the Galápagos Islands (Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Patrick O’Brien’s The Far Side of the World, with an eye towards how indigenous peoples are presented in both the writing of the time and in historical fiction set during a similar period); Antarctica (contrasting the perspective of the all-male expedition recounted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World with the all-female one imagined in Ursula Le Guin’s story ‘Sur’); the Himalayas (Jon Krakauer’s journalistic Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster and Michelle Paver’s ghost narrative Thin Air); as well as work about Earth’s Moon (comparing Jules Verne’s prescient fictional depictions of lunar exploration with the most extreme form of travel writing that there is: the aforementioned books written by Apollo astronauts, here specifically Eugene Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon).

Framing all this was an introductory session foregrounding the problematic colonial elements of many explorations texts as I though it important for students to keep in mind from the outset how exploration, imperialism, military adventurism, and privilege so often go hand in hand. Indeed, we really got to wrestle with these questions of race, gender, and exoticisation in the weekly seminars which accompanied the lectures. For example, one class focused on how the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy abducted native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, and the ways in which that experience harmed and traumatised the individuals in question. Another explored the history of the Sherpa people of Nepal, examining interviews and texts where they could tell their own story. Along the way we conducted exercises asking students to rewrite exploration narratives from the perspectives of the people being “explored” by the West and to (re)imagine what contemporary trips to the module’s selected locations would be like.

Luckily I had some wonderful students who rose to the challenge on all occasions. It was a joy to deliver the module, from week one’s hilarious quest to locate the obscure lecture hall (“Who would have thought that your first exploration would be finding the room?!”) to the final week’s freewheeling discussion of unmade journeys and unexplored places (“Mars next!”; “Europa’s oceans!”; “The Sun!” “France!” “Wait… France?!”). Several of the students also developed/workshopped characters and ideas that they intend to utilise on the final year Writing Projects (the creative practice equivalent of a dissertation) which is very gratifying to hear. In terms of the texts we studied, they seemed to enjoy Le Guin the most (unsurprising as A.) it’s a phenomenal story by an amazing writer; and B.) it was the shortest piece we looked at!). Maybe they weren’t quite as enthusiastic about Patrick O’Brien as I was but, on a pedagogic level, the comparison between The Far Side of the World and Darwin’s journals was fruitful and illustrative.

The module will be taking a hiatus in academic year 2019/20 as I will be on research leave next semester (which has knock-on effects for my teaching load), but when it returns for academic year 2020/21 I am planning the following changes based on this year’s experiences: swapping out Jules Verne from the Moon unit and replacing him with Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history of the space race in The Calculating Stars (newly crowned Best Novel 2019 at the Nebula Awards), a contrast to the real life account given by Cernan and a narrative that ought also offer students an interesting dialogue with Le Guin’s ‘Sur’. I will then eliminate the Himalayas unit entirely (participants found its snow and ice not distinctive enough from the Antarctic explorations covered) and will replace it with an investigation of writing about the deep oceans. Verne will move to this oceans unit with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I will partner that with Hali Felt’s biography of mapmaker Marie Tharp, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. I will also slightly rewrite some of my Darwin material as I lately had the chance to meet some Galápagos tortoises up close and personal courtesy of London Zoo’s ‘Zookeeper for a Day’ experience (which is, for the record, tremendous!). There I was (obviously under supervision!) allowed enter their enclosure and interact with them (so inquisitive! So mobile!) and I look forward to relating that experience to the next cohort of ‘Explorations’ students.


Other posts you may find of interest:



How the Moon Landing was Covered by the Irish Newspapers

ApolloToday marks the 45th anniversary of the historic lunar landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (ably supported in orbit by pilot Michael Collins), an achievement as momentous as it is distant from the more modest space ambitions of today. The event is being commemorated around the world as part of the #Apollo45 campaign, and I thought it might be interesting to add an Irish perspective by taking a quick look back at how contemporary newspapers here reported on the mission and the crew of Apollo 11.

I was pleased to find that, in the main, they did so with interest and enthusiasm (almost always being careful to preserve the image of Ireland’s neutrality by soliciting comments from Soviet representatives) and all three of the country’s main papers at the time, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, and the now defunct Irish Press devoted the entirety of their front pages to coverage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.

Of course, the most curious thing from today’s perspective is how each paper also allocated a portion of those pages to the reaction of the Catholic Church. It is easy to make fun of nowadays (the thought of seeking a bishop’s opinion, let alone the Pope’s, on a major space mission, an undertaking of engineering and technology, is cartoonish at best), but it is a measure of how deeply (one might say dangerously) entrenched the Church was in Irish life at the time. Nevertheless, this “Catholic coverage” is a trend visible across all the Irish newspapers reporting on Apollo 11 and it gives a particularly (if regretfully stereotypical) Irish bent to the greatest news story of the last century.

Irish Times, July 21st 1969

Irish Times, July 21st 1969

Irish Times: The Moon Landing dominated the front page of the Irish Times. File photos of Armstrong and Aldrin – somewhat incorrectly referred to as ‘the first Earthmen on another planet’ – are balanced by a grainy screengrab of the ‘epic walk on the Moon’ itself. Yet the paper eschewes (one suspects deliberately) the obvious photograph of the American flag on the lunar surface. It also includes coverage of the unmanned Soviet Luna-15 probe (prominently placed in a column on the center of the page), which had just entered a new orbit around the moon with a closest approach of at an altitude of only 10 miles (Soviet news-service Tass is also quoted extensively on the lunar landing itself).

The paper offered no Irish reaction on its cover. Instead, in articles largely sourced from news services, it quoted Sir Bernard Lovell, director of the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory (‘The moment of touch-down was one of the moments of greatest drama in the history of man’), British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was just about to send troops into Northern Ireland (‘Our deep wish is for a safe return’), and from Pope Paul (‘A celebration on the part of the whole terrestrial globe’).

As well as being quoted in the main article, the Pope’s reaction also receives dedicated coverage in a column beneath the photos of the astronauts. Scientific progress had reached an historic landmark, he said, adding ‘the admiration, the enthusiasm, the passion for instruments, for the products of man’s ingenuity and his hand fascinates us, perhaps even to the point of madness’. A second religiously themed article reports on Aldrin’s bringing of communion wafer to the lunar surface, quoting members of the astronaut’s church on the subject of his faith.

Inside, the paper’s editorial acknowledged that ‘the oldest and wildest dream of the human race has been realized’ while also lamenting that ‘the cause of science had not been the predominating motive’ as well as ‘the decision to bring the American flag instead of the United Nations flag’. Perhaps taking its lead from the Pope, the editorial concluded that ‘man has reached the moon without any revolution in his moral being. It remains the saddest paradox’.

Irish Independent, July 21st 1969

Irish Independent, July 21st 1969

Irish Independent: Ireland’s other main broadsheet offered readers a front cover very similar to that of the Irish Times (down to the Luna-15 coverage in a center column). ‘Man sets foot on moon for first time,’ the headline declares. But again the accompanying photography leaves something to be desired (the Independent offers a ‘spectacular’ photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface’ but it is both dark and grainy as well as being an image ‘taken by a previous Apollo’). Neil Armstrong, ‘Commander of moonship Eagle’, is reported to have said, ‘It’s one small step for man but one large step for man’. Yes, one of the most famous utterances in history is misquoted, but Armstrong’s piloting is lauded: ‘He grabbed control of his ship, sent it clear of the area where it would have met almost certain disaster, and landed four miles beyond the original landing point’.

Pope Paul again gets a dedicated article (‘Pope Greets Landing with “Glory to God”’) which, as in the Times, is quite prominently placed. The Independent quotes extensively from the ‘unscheduled speech’ in which he hailed the astronauts as having conquered the ‘pale lamp of our nights and our dreams’. Inside the paper was a picture of the Pontiff looking ‘at the lunar zone where the Apollo astronauts landed’ through the telescope at the Vatican Observatory, as well as further coverage of his speech (‘It is absolutely necessary that the heart of man should become freer, better, more religious as the power of his machines, his weapons, become more dangerous [..] Where is true humanity? Where is brotherhood? Where is peace?’). The inside pages also contain an article on what was described as Aldrin’s ‘communion service on the moon’.

Coverage continued during the week, though it utilized fewer pieces from the wires and is noticeably less rigorous than the ongoing reportage from the Irish Times. The next day’s edition of the Independent included a recipe for ‘Apollo brownies’ (a ‘recipe for junior Apollo lunarnauts which you can make in your own kitchen’) as well as a prayer composed by Bishop Fultan Sheen, an American visiting Dublin: ‘Man has got the Earth into his head, now he must get the heavens into his head by understanding them and mastering them. There yet remains the task of man getting his head into the Heavens of God, which is the most important of all’. The prayer was said for the first time at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar St. where Sheen was conducting a novena and is… an odd read, let’s put it that way

Irish Press, July 21 1969

Irish Press, July 21 1969

Irish Press: ‘Astronauts walk Moon’s surface’ the cover of the Irish Press announces, accompanied by a “hero shot” of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in front of a lunar lander. It is as close to the triumphalist American newspaper front pages as was to be found in Ireland at the time (there is, for instance, no mention of the Soviet probe on the cover, though it is covered inside). Really, if one were to frame and display any of these pages, it would be this one. The lunar landing, the paper says, ‘was not only a great feat of American technology, it was a triumph of the human spirit’. Armstrong is again praised and his piloting skill is cited as an example of why exploration ought to be conducted by people rather than machines. Aldrin too receives acclaim as ‘one of the best scientific minds America has ever sent into space’.

Meanwhile, a separate headline tells us that ‘Pope Paul exclaims with joy’. The article is largely the same as those in the Times and Independent, though it humanizes the Pontiff by noting how his address was ‘written out by hand just hours before the Moon landing’ and was ‘one of the most emotional speeches’ he has ever delivered.

Extensive interior coverage is distinguished by its reliance on the paper’s own writers rather than on quotes from wire services and, in all, it makes the Irish Press’s take on events the most interesting (perhaps the most amusing) from an Irish perspective. For instance, the paper is keen to remind its readers that ‘Ireland has a family stake in the Apollo 11 mission – Patricia Collins, wife of astronaut Michael Collins, is the daughter of an Irishman. Her father was the late Joseph Finnegan of Lissinaskea, Bekan, Claremorris, Co. Mayo. He emigrated to America as a young man where he qualified as a lawyer’.

Further articles of “local” interest included a piece on the Irish contribution to the history of rocketry as well as reaction from the streets (‘I think a person would have to be very dense not to be interested in this fantastic achievement,’ said taximan Gerard Fearon; meanwhile ‘film actress Susannah York, casually walking through St. Stephen’s Green, couldn’t see any point in the whole exercise’). This look at the responses of Dubliners was rounded out by a description of the reaction in the Irish Press bullpen itself: ‘Typewriters died in mid-stutter. Telephones lay in their cradles […] Even Alec Newman’s pipe wet out. Man on the Moon will be remembered as the story, the big story, which stopped the newsroom in its tracks’.

Throughout the interior feature, the Irish Press is breathless about all aspects of the mission (‘A perfect landing’! ‘Dead on time’!). Additional coverage included a photo spread of the astronauts, their wives, and the Pope (of course!), as well as those astronauts who lost their lives in the Apollo 1 fire (Rodger Chaffe, Edward White, and Virgil Grissom), along with the late cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov.

Limerick Leader, July 21st 1969

Limerick Leader, July 21st 1969

Finally, even the local papers such as the Limerick Leader got in on the story. ‘Moon men set for blast off,’ its headline reads, referring to Armstrong and Aldrin’s ascent back into lunar orbit. The story lies rather incongruously alongside coverage of clerical appointments and a new ‘express cruiser for Killaloe’. The Leader’s Apollo story does not offer any notable moments and, admittedly, has the feel of obligatory coverage of an event which isn’t strictly within the paper’s remit (and which is being covered much more extensively by the national media), though one supposes it was very far away from the actresses and ambassadors of the Irish Press’s Dublin beat. Still, as someone from Limerick, I’m pleased that the story received some attention back home.

Indeed, the Irish coverage of the lunar landing is something I may return to again, perhaps writing something more extensive about it in the future. There’s a value to it, I think, at least once one gets beyond the material from wire services. Might be interesting to expand the net beyond the day of the landing itself and see what else is out there. After all, what was Apollo about if not exploration?


Other posts you may find of interest:

Trip of a lifetime for Canadian space oddity

I have a particular love of books written by astronauts and so was delighted that I got the chance to review Chris Hadfield’s memoir recently:

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on EarthAnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarth
Chris Hadfield
Macmillan, £18.99
Review: Val Nolan

Chris Hadfield would make anyone feel inadequate. An aeronautical engineer, a top graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School, former US Navy test pilot of the year, former Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Centre, former commander of the International Space Station and, essentially, a rock star, with his zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ receiving millions of views online. Oh, and he also speaks Russian.

But, says Hadfield, “I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one”. It is a transformation he describes with great humour and modesty, the story of how the 1969 moon landing inspired a nine-year-old in rural Ontario to overcome his fear of heights — let alone the fact that Canada didn’t have a space programme until the 1990s — and become the man responsible for success and safety aboard the “world’s spaceship”.

Responsible too for one of the most successful campaigns of scientific awareness in recent decades. Hadfield’s tweets from orbit placed the universe on our phones and laptop screens but they were no mere publicity stunt. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth contextualises them as a powerful tool in the author’s educational arsenal, a means of exciting people, particularly young people, about space again.

Of course, what stands out most about Hadfield’s hugely engaging book is his acknowledgment that he could not have succeeded alone. Hadfield is as appreciative of his wife, family (“Space Oddity” was his son’s idea), and “loyal, courageous, and brave” colleagues as he is quietly damning about those few out only for themselves. “Leadership is not about glorious crowning acts,” he says. “It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it”.

He learnt this as a fighter jock intercepting Soviet aircraft which strayed into Canadian territory (“not a low-stress occupation”) and, later, as a test pilot pushing F-18s beyond their design limits while earning his master’s degree by night. When the new Canadian Space Agency opened its doors to “highly informed, consenting human guinea pigs” in 1992 he was selected out of more than 5,000 applicants.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is thus propelled by its author’s joy at actually getting to live his impossible dream. Hadfield’s enthusiasm is such that his writing often verges on the poetic, but this is also a pragmatic volume in which he is candid about the risks involved in his profession. Yes he may romanticise a rocket “lit up and shining, an obelisk”, but he is still able to see it as “a 4.5 megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it”. Hadfield’s experiences on the Space Station are similarly exemplified by contradiction: people “sleep on air” but have no running water; their hearts shrink physically but grow in their fondness for the Earth and its inhabitants. Hadfield, by eschewing technical detail, foregrounds the “human aspect of space exploration” and his book is all the more wonderful because of it.

Indeed, forget for a moment that this is the memoir of an astronaut. Instead see it as the work of someone who has learnt “to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter”. In such a light this book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to accomplish their goals. “Sweat the small stuff without letting anyone see you sweat,” he says. Stellar advice for life on Earth and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 22nd February 2014.


Other posts you may enjoy:

Kind of Hard Not to See a Pattern Here…



So, I was reading some articles on space exploration yesterday (as you do!)  and I began to see an interesting pattern as regards space agency insignia. The logos of all the more prominent agencies seem to revolve (or orbit, if you will) around a predictable group of symbols – planets, stars, aspirational arrowheads – but, more than that, they all seemed to be leading inexorably towards Star Trek‘s fictional Starfleet emblem.

While I’d long be familiar with the NASA and Roscosmos logos and have noticed the slight resemblance before, the emblem of the Chinese National Space Agency has a real “Missing Link” quality to it given how closely it resembles the Next Generation era combadge/Starfleet insignia.

A little more Googling has turned up the following about the symbolism of the various logos:

NASA Insignia:

Wikipedia informs me (so it must be true, right?) that the NASA insignia displays a sphere to represents a planet, stars to represent space, a red chevron – in the alternate shape of the constellation Andromeda – as a wing representing aeronautics (as it resembled the latest design in hypersonic wings at the time the logo was developed), and, finally, an orbiting spacecraft going around the wing. NASA’s round logo has long been nicknamed the “meatball”. Bonus fun fact: The meatball adorns the mug I’m drinking out of right now!

Russian Federal Space Agency Logo:

This one is tougher. I’ve been able to find out nothing about the Roscosmos logo (Jeez, Russia, paranoid much) but I know that it is relatively recent, the agency being established in 1992 to take the place of the old Soviet Space Program (who, of course, had a very Soviet logo). It’s tempting to assume that the Roscosmos insignia has a similar symbolism to that of the NASA meatball; a planet (or an orbit) and a wing (or possibly a star). Maybe it even takes its inspiration from it, though that’s just supposition on my part. After all, there were other things going on in the early 90s (let me get back to that).

Chinese National Space Administration Logo:

This is a good one. Wikipedia says the CNSA’s logo displays an “arrow in the middle with a similar shape as the Chinese character 人 which means ‘human’ or ‘people’, to state that human is the center of all space explorations. The three concentric ellipses stand for three types of Escape Velocity (minimum speed needed to reach sustainable orbits, to escape the earth system, and to escape the solar system) which are milestones of space exploration. The second ring is drawn with a bold line, to state that China has passed the first stage of exploration (earth system) and is undergoing the second stage exploration (within the solar system). The 人 character stands above the three rings to emphasize humanity’s capability to escape and explore. Olive branches were added to state that China’s space exploration is peaceful in nature” or, as one of my friends remarked on Facebook,  to indicate that the CNSA “might endorse a movie or something”.

Starfleet Emblem:

The only fictional insignia here, the well-known Starfleet delta shield was created in 1964 by William Ware Theiss when he designed the uniforms for the original Star Trek series (thank you, Memory Alpha). At first this was the insignia of the Enterprise alone but it was later adopted by the entire organisation in honor of the achievements of that ship and crew. Mike Okuda, one of the franchise’s leading graphic designers (and who may have a character named after him in the novel I’m working on, shush!), described it as follows: “A dramatic free-form arrowhead pointing symbolically upward to the heavens.”


Any sense of evolution from one logo to the next is presumably a case of apophenia on my part, however it’s worth nothing that the NASA meatball was designed by James Modarelli in 1959 and presumably would have been familiar to Theiss, Gene Roddenberry, and others involved in the original Star Trek series. That original arrowhead was revised in 1987 for Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series at the height of its fame in the early 1990s when Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Agency came into being (1992 and 1993 respectively) and, while it might be possible to claim an independent development for the Roscosmos logo (or at least one influenced by the symbolism of the NASA logo), I think both it and especially the Chinese logo bear a remarkable similarity to the 90s Starfleet delta shield…

There’s probably something really interesting to be written about the interplay between real-life and fictional space program/military iconography, especially in terms of feedback between the two (or even feedback between real life insignia and popular culture in general; I’m thinking of the licensed appearance of Daffy Duck and Marvin the Martian on the mission patches for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers).  More than a blog post in that, mind, so for now I’ll just add it to the ever-growing Things-to-Think-About list.


Other posts you may enjoy:

%d bloggers like this: