Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘space’

08 MAY, 2014

Visionary Vintage Children’s Book Celebrates Gender Equality, Ethnic Diversity, and Space Exploration

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“The blackness of space was dotted with stars.”

For all their immeasurable delight, children’s books also have a serious cultural responsibility — they capture young minds and plant in them the seeds that blossom into beliefs about what is socially acceptable, what is right and wrong, and what is possible. This weight of possibility is both a blessing and a burden, given the terrible track record children’s books have of celebrating diversity — both ethnically and in terms of gender norms. Only 31 percent of children’s books feature female heroines, and even those consistently purvey limiting gender expectations; of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, a mere 93 were about black people. The ones that fully embrace cultural diversity or empower girls are few and far between, to say nothing of those rare specimens that get girls excited about science.

One of the most heartening antidotes to this lamentable state of affairs comes from 1973. Four years after the historic moon landing, as the world was falling in love with space exploration, the education arm of the Xerox Corporation published Blast Off (public library) — an extraordinarily imaginative little book by two women writers, Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, illustrated by the legendary duo Leo and Diane Dillon, best-known for illustrating the most popular edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

It is a story of space flight, whose protagonist is not only a girl but a black girl — and not a girl who is being mansplained about the way of the world, but a girl who does the explaining herself.

“For as long as she could remember, Regina Williams wanted to become an astronaut,” the story begins. One day, as Regina is drawing a diagram of a rocket on the sidewalk by her house, two of her friends come by and inquire about the “funny-shaped thing.”

She explains that it’s a spaceship and shares her dream of flying on a real one someday:

I’ll zoom through the sky into space. I’ll find new worlds and maybe meet new people, and I’ll come back and be famous!

Her friends just laugh at her and walk away, which leaves Regina all the more determined to pursue her dream. She sets out to build her very own spaceship out of junk — a few boxes and an old trash can become her space capsule — as she wonders whether her dream of becoming an astronaut will ever come true.

The story continues and, being a children’s tale, has a happy ending — but at its heart is a proposition both bittersweet and truly visionary: It would be exactly a decade until Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and nearly twenty years until Mae Jemison launched into the cosmos as the first African American astronaut.

Though long out of print and somewhat dated in its details, Blast Off endures as a heartening antidote to a culture that all too frequently contains and confines children’s dreams by selling them lesser visions of the possible, failing to cultivate in them the essential capacity to imagine immensities.

What might a contemporary version of this spirit look like? Perhaps the most heartening example today remains Carla Torres’s Larry and Friends.

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18 MARCH, 2014

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Covers Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in Space

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“Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…”

For no other reason than sheer soul-uplifting awesomeness, here’s astronaut Chris Hadfield — yes, him — covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station, which Hadfield considers “the world’s first great outpost away from the world”:

Hadfield, whose 2013 book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything is absolutely fantastic, also performed “Space Oddity” at TED 2014. Here’s a serendipitous shot that makes his guitar look like a tiny sun:

It may seem a small thing, silly even, but how little it takes to get Earth excited about space, and how very necessary that we do so. Perhaps we need more Chris Hadfields to rekindle public interest in space exploration.

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27 JANUARY, 2014

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Success and the Meaning of Life

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“If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster.”

Shortly after the release of his fantastic book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (public library), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sat down with celebrated British-Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National to discuss his experience aboard the International Space Station. From his sage advice to Olympic athletes, the essence of which extends more broadly to our culture’s flawed relationship with striving and success, to his simple, profound contemplation of the meaning of life, Hadfield proves himself to be not only a fierce explorer of the universe, but also a deeply thoughtful explorer of the human condition, capable of articulating those most universal of inquiries in simple yet profound language. Highlights below.

On the trouble with goal-oriented striving, echoing Thoreau’s definition of success and seconding Cheryl Strayed’s memorable assertion that “the useless days will add up to something [for] these things are your becoming”:

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. … Commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life. You need to honor the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.

On the meaning of life, adding to the famous contemplations of cultural icons:

I’ve had a tremendous privilege of perspective that almost nobody has had. When you talk about the meaning of life, we tend to think about it as life on Earth. To be away from the planet for a long time and to be able to see it constantly out the window allows you a reflection on it that is really hard to get just in regular day-to-day. So I think if there is any sort of meaning of life, it’s got to be very personal. How does the life that you lead affect your own conclusions about what’s important to you?

The book itself is absolutely spectacular. Hadfield paints a backdrop in the introduction:

The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.

Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of even rarer beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour — it was a moment I’d been dreaming of and working toward most of my life.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield goes on to explore not only how he attained that exulted moment against remarkable odds, but also how he filled the seemingly mundane moments, those in-between pockets of living, with pure life.

Thanks, Craig

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