Just over 25 years ago, on September 12, 1993, I stood in the humid early morning air at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral FL.
My co-workers from the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab and I were there to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, which held our telescope in its cargo bay.
It was NASA STS-51 (Space Transportation System spaceflight 51) and the payload was ORFEUS-SPAS (Orbiting & Retrievable Far & Extreme UV Spectrometer — Shuttle Palette Satellite).
ORFEUS was a telescope designed and built by astrophysicists and engineers from the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab, the Astronomical Institute at the University of Tübingen, and Landessternwarte Heidelberg (National Observatory of Heidelberg).
ORFEUS contained two spectrometers capable of collecting data about space objects emitting far ultraviolet (FUV) and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light.
A spectrometer splits light collected by a telescope into all of its separate colors. We can get a lot of information about an object in space based on the light it emits. For example, we can know its temperature, direction of travel, speed, weight, and composition.
Why did we need to send the telescope into space to collect this data? Because FUV and EUV light emitted by the space objects we were interested in are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere. A telescope on Earth wouldn’t be able to see the light we were interested in!
We were at an observation site miles from the actual launch site, but the roar of the engines at liftoff took hold of my body. It was loud and visceral beyond belief. The energy coming off of the launch site moved in waves, filling the air with a communal awe and hope.
I fell in love that day — with space.
After the launch, we headed back to KSC to prepare for the exciting and nerve-wracking days ahead.
Would the satellite deploy as expected? Would the satellite door open to allow data collection to begin? And at a most basic level, had all Remove Before Flight tags been removed?
I remember sitting at a terminal in our designated work area at KSC, checking email when I looked up at a television mounted on a pillar in the room.
From the dark display, I saw the shape of Africa slowly taking shape as the Space Shuttle’s broadcast came into focus and revealed the lights of cities along its coasts. I don’t have an exact image of what I saw, but this is close.
Something in me shifted.
As we went to bed that night, the ASTRO-SPAS satellite was still snugly held in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, awaiting release.
On the second day in orbit, the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay doors opened and astronaut Dan Bursch controlled the robotic arm, aka Canadarm, to send ORFEUS-SPAS on its 6-day FUV and EUV light data-collection mission.
Once released, they tested the ASTRO-SPAS door and it opened to reveal the sky to the ORFEUS telescope.
Shortly thereafter, the phrase “first light” bounced around the room with great celebration.
In astronomy, the first use of a telescope to take an astronomical image is called first light.
I remember being called over to a monitor to see the first light captured by the ORFEUS telescope. Again, I don’t have an exact image of what I saw, but it looked like this image, which is first light captured by the Kepler Space Telescope.
My poet-brain lit up.
Two perspective-shifting images would now be with me forever: one looking to the Earth and one looking to the infinite universe.
On September 19, 1993, the astronauts used the robotic arm to retrieve ORFEUS-SPAS.
On September 22, 1993, the Space Shuttle Discovery returned to Earth.
In the following months and years, the astrophysicists and engineers would go on to publish dozens of scientific papers based on the FUV and EUV light data collected.
Conjuring these two images, Africa-from-space and ORFEUS’ first light, even after all of these years, still instantly transports me to an alien, timeless, weightless place. And it is in this place that I have found much inspiration.
Underlying all of my poetry is an aesthetic and mystery that I attribute to these encounters I had with space. While I myself did not travel into space, seeing these low-fidelity images on monitors was enough to spark my imagination and have a profound impact on my consciousness and creativity.
On this day, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. moon landing, I send my gratitude to NASA and all of the agencies and people who dare to work to release our Earth-bound bodies and minds to a place just a little bit higher, just a little bit closer to infinity.
Weightlessness is a great equalizer.
— Sally Ride, NASA astronaut and first American woman in space