Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

 

Rhysling and Me



There's a full moon tonight, glowing white.

I've been watching it for hours, as I try to get something, anything, resembling sleep. It's dawn now, there's a cock crowing, and dogs barking.

I haven't slept well for most of a year, and hardly at all since the Columbia disintegrated. The Challenger explosion abruptly altered the course of my life, in ways I'm only beginning now to understand. At the time I was active in the L5 society, and I thought, every day, in my small way, about ways to make it possible for humanity to colonise the solar system. I dreamed of living on an Apollo orbit asteroid... with a view of the solar system from my office window, ever-changing, of the Milky Way.

The rocks beyond the moon, elliptically circling around the sun, crossing the orbits of Venus and the asteroid belt, have called to me since I was 11 years old.

I loved the space program. My first clear memory is of the moon landings in 1969. I associate that incredible feeling as Armstrong touched the surface with the taste of chocolate ice cream, but that memory may be from Norman Spinrad's Russian Spring, I don't know.

The solar system seemed to me then, and now, as humanity's only hope to save itself from running out of resources, from overpopulation, pollution, and from nuclear and chemical warfare. We're already warring over oil, and no matter how many wars we fight, or nature preserves we open to drilling, we're still going to run out somewhere between 2050 and 2100. And then what?

Our children's children will starve. They will suffer privation, and cold, and they will curse our generations as short sighted imbeciles that had the stars within reach and let them slip away.

The Challenger blew up one cold morning in January... I was on a phone tree, and I got the call from someone crying. I then had to call other space activists, and tell them to turn on the tv, too. I watched the explosion again, and again, and again. Even now, I can replay the whole thing in my head. Later on I watched the Roger Commission hearings... and I saw Richard Feynman eloquently demonstrate why the Challenger blew up - human ignorance of physical law - and I thought I knew why we didn't deserve to get into space.

I went to sleep, crying, that night. When I woke up, I'd blocked out every thought I'd ever had about getting off this filthy rock called Earth. I gave up the "Bold and Magnificent Dream" and dedicated myself to the corporate world, and making do with what I had, still utterly convinced we had little time left before our world went to hell, but I buried that pain, deep, and tried to keep functioning in the day to day that everyone else seemed to accept.

One day, in mid-1993, I met Kurt Heisig in Santa Cruz. He'd built 0-g saxaphone for Ron McNair which actually flew into space with him Feburary 2-11th in 1984! All kurt had was pictures, but there was music to be made in space, and Kurt still had hope for man.

I started writing a song, or rather, my subconcious started writing a song, about my break with the dream, and everything that went with it. I grew obsessed and tried to sum up everything I'd ever felt about space in it.

The song's called Falling Free and Flying High - Requiem for the Magnificent dream. Sometimes I call it Rhysling and Me.

Rhysling was the lead character in Robert A Heinlein's story Green Hills of Earth - an engineer, blinded in an accident caused by management stupidity, who was dumped with half a month's pay in Mars spaceport. He became an itererant musician, hopping lifts on spaceships throughout the solar system. Blinded, so that he couldn't see what life was really like, anymore, the worlds all became clean and wonderful, all the women beautiful, and all the men noble and kind. In a internal way Rhysling was my closest friend. He died heroically, and his last words he sang into a tape recorder.

In December 1993, I took a trip to get away from the chaos that my life had become and stayed for a week at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a youth hostel between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It was a beautiful place, with a hot tub that looked out over the ocean, and you could almost make out the Milky way. I almost got healed there, but... I was beyond healing. I could, at least, and did, share my pain with someone else that understood.

I met an engineer there who had just quit the space program. Space Station "Freedom" had become anything but - the politicians had decided to "save money" by collaborating with Russia on it - but this meant that we had to change the orbit to accomidate their launching facilities, and the costs were actually going to triple! Again, ignorance of physical law had wrecked a piece of the space program. This engineer called himself "Crazy Horse". He was bitter, and angry, and suicidal. I have no idea if he lived through his own personal hell or not. Together we scribbled down a new version of the song on the guestbook of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. A few years ago I uploaded it to my web site.

And there it sat. I'd play the song, periodically, whenever I was most blue, but I tried desparately to have a life happy enough to not have to play it.

Then I got a call from Josh, telling me about the Columbia. I started playing Rhysling and Me, over and over again, pathologically. I wrote two new verses.

I spent a few days down in San Diego, and on the trip up, I thought I'd improve my mood and distract myself by going to Mexico, or Disneyland.

I ended up in a hotel in LA.

That night, my guitar and amp were stolen from my car. It rained, and rained, there was no going to Disney, either. I had no choice, nothing left but my raw determination, to beat murphy, human avarice, and stupidity, but to go find a guitar and a studio and lay down this song. I added some samples and did some overdubs, and... I'm releasing this recording of Rhysling and Me (and a related song, The Morning Light under the terms of the Creative Commons ShareAlike license. This means the songs are free for you to use as you see fit. Feel free to make as many copies as you want, or re-record them, or add a track of your own, to share your joy (in the early part of Rhysling and Me) and your grief (in the later part). Or just listen, and share in my grief. Maybe, if we all work together, in 9 or 13 or 17 years, we can add a third part, full of joy again.

I'll be doing some new overdubs and samples myself, subtracting out part of the current one, maybe even doing a new cut, over the next week. I ran into Kurt Heisig on Sunday. He'll be adding in a sax part this weekend with me. If you want to join in a jam session near Santa Cruz, Ca, please email me

I battled Murphy all day yesterday, trying to upload what I have so far, and finally got the mp3 up just now. Battling Murphy is a worthy cause. I know, now, I should never give up. We should never give up. We have to keep trying. If we screw up, we have to learn from our mistakes, and try again. We can't let Murphy beat us on the road to space, either. There's no limit to what determined men can do.

We have to keep trying to get into space. There's no other choice. There's is some intelligent life down here. Isn't there?

Maybe now, after having shared this with you all, I can sleep.

Michael

 
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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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