John Milton in 1645 seemed to anticipate space travel that yet lay more than four centuries in the future when he wrote of, "Him that yon soars on golden wing, guiding the fiery-wheeled throne…" He also had figured out the destination, "On the dry smooth-shaven green, to behold the wandering moon…"
Science would later disabuse us of the notion that the moon is made of green cheese - or is even green - but scientists aren't poets and perhaps that's why there doesn't seem to be the same enthusiasm for space exploration that there once was. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that, when asked to name the greatest U.S. accomplishment of the past 50 years, just 12 percent of Americans named sending men to the moon, down a third from 10 years ago.
The American astronauts, and their Russian cosmonaut counterparts, are men and women of science, and it is as scientists that they see things, and in the language of science that they describe what they see. But, most of us earthlings respond more passionately to poetry than prose. It may be the poetry of space that is missing.
Consider this conversation between Mission Control, Houston and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong shortly after his lunar lander first touched down on the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969:
Armstrong: "The area out the left-hand window is a relatively level plain cratered with a fairly large number of craters...and some ridges...and literally thousands of little...craters around the area. We see some angular blocks out...in front of us that...have angular edges. There is a hill in view, just about on the ground track ahead of us."
Mission Control: "Roger, Tranquility. We copy. Over." What else could they say in response to such scientifically-factual reporting?
Later, with some of the technical work out of the way, Armstrong would describe the lunar landscape with a bit more passion: "It has a stark beauty all its own," he would say. "It's much like the high desert of the United States. It's different, but it's very pretty out here."
His fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, would come a little closer to poetry when he described the lunar surface as "magnificent desolation."
But, none approached the imagery that the English poet Alfred Noyes summoned some 60 years earlier when he wrote in The Highwayman, "The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas." Perhaps that was only true from an earthbound perspective.
It would be a politician, Ronald Reagan, who would invoke the strongest poetic image of space travel and the dangers it encompasses when, following the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986 with school teacher Christa McAuliffe on board, he quoted the words of Canadian pilot/poet John Gillespie Magee in speaking of them as having "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
Perhaps somewhere, on some moonlit night, NASA will find a poet with pencil and paper, ready to travel.