Sonnets in Space
  Up Late    April 1, 2017     Eric Larkin

An interesting experiment that did not get much public attention was last year’s ISS (International Space Station) project on literature, specifically poetry. This was a joint study between NASA, the UK Space Agency (informally and affectionately called “Royal Rocket”), Oxford University, and UC Berkeley. Two professors, after long and arduous astronaut training(!), went up with the European Space Agency ISS resupply in late May of 2016 and spent a month on this unique set of experiments. These were Professor Andrew Pettigee (Berkeley) and Dr. Sherilyn Dao (Oxford).

The actual study, informally called “Sonnets in Space”, consisted of a series of readings, all 150+ sonnets plus “Venus and Adonis”, both silently and aloud, the rest of the crew often serving as audience. “Honestly, the hardest aspect of the study was pulling on tights in a weightless environment”, said Pettigee, who will publish findings in a joint paper with Dr. Dao in a special supplement of London Review of Books this summer. 

The intention seems to have been to focus on Shakespearean sonnets, but apparently – in a pique of scholarly mischievousness – Pettigee and Dao smuggled selections of Emily Dickinson and Robert Burns onto the Station. A ripple of shock ran thru the Cape Canaveral command center when “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” lilted over the audio system during a check-in. Said Mission Supervisor Roger Nebbs, “That was a special moment, totally unlooked for. You sometimes lose that sense of awe in our work. It becomes routine. But when the whole control team picked it up and joined in, Futile- the winds- / To a Heart in port- / Done with the Compass- / Done with the Chart! — those rare moments remind us why we’re in the space-aeronautics business.”

Commander Abby R. Collins said, “It really was burdensome having crew members with no background in the sciences, two people on board who had no idea of how to run anything on the station or help with even the simplest of maintenance work. They were supposed to have had some kind of training, but I guess it was just fitness and defecating in a bag – that kinda thing. They were just dead weight. Sometimes the real crew members and I would huddle in Zvezda – one of the Russian modules – and take bets on which of the softies was gonna get space fever first. Oh – one time, we locked Pettigee in the Rassvet for 8 hours, told him it was ‘his turn’ to watch for asteroids. He actually did it – 8 hours at this tiny porthole – ha ha, unbelievable. On the other hand, they could really throw back the sauce. We had a good time.” Said UK astronaut Major Tim Peake, “It reminded me of home.”

“Extra-vehicular activity always seemed to conflict with our sonnet presentations” says Prof Pettigee — photo U.S. Army

Another crew member, Flight Engineer Colonel Ivan Polavich, added “And the readings were awful. They might be scholars, but for readings – they just droned on and on. I’ve already applied for removal from the next mission. They’re supposed to do Richard III, and get this- they don’t think they need actors. God, the hubris. Who’s gonna handle Lady Anne’s abrupt change of heart in Act I, scene 2? Sherilyn Dao? Dao’s a hack.”

Dr. Dao, who originally proposed the study to Pettigee over the course of a joint sabbatical last year while on a Mediterranean cruise (they’re “involved”), is at Oxford, where she is Don of the Englishes at St. Mary’s College School. The UK Space Agency, a fledgling but well-funded and thoroughly squared-away organization, had been waiting for an assignment, and jumped at the opportunity to do something with all that money and technology just lying around the office/command center. “Poetry? Sculling? Assembling IKEA furniture? We’re up for trying anything as long as it’s in space,” said Tim. “When Dr. Dao walked into our office/command center, we burst into tears.”

“It’s true. Sometimes it didn’t even seem like they were working out there” agrees Dr Dao — photo UC Davis College of Engineering

“We began thinking that after over 50 years in space, it was more than past time we explored the effects of zero gravity on iambic pentameter,” said Pettigee, UC Berkeley Renaissance Lit Department Chair and a Shakespeare specialist. “When we made our initial proposal to NASA, we were surprised to discover that they’d been working on something similar of their own. Inexplicably, they were focusing on William Blake, of all people.” [laughs]

Look for “Sonnets in Space – The First UK/US Joint Study on the Outra-Terrestrial Pressures of Zero Gravity, et al, on Elizabethan and Other Canonical Verse” in the June issue of the LRB. 




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