NPR Story
8:48 am
Fri February 1, 2013

East Texas poet to recite his elegy to fallen astronauts

Ten years after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over East Texas, many communities are hosting exhibits and memorial services. NASA is holding a public memorial service at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On the fateful morning in 2003, NASA’s James Hartsfield narrated the scene.

"This is Mission Control Houston, flight director Leroy Cain is instructing controllers to follow contingency procedures. The last communications with the Shuttle Columbia during its descent from orbit were about 8 a.m. central time, as it was descending through the atmosphere at an altitude of about 207,000 feet en route to Kennedy Center Florida with a touchdown that was anticipated to occur 2 ½ minutes ago," Hartsfield said.

A coffee shop in Jacksonville, Texas will host a poetry reading to honor the seven astronauts who died. Philosophy professor Peter Hoheisel will read his poem “Unplanned Destination.” It was published in the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas.

"From a human point of view, and a big section of the poem is about that, these people were about 10 minutes from landing. Part of it I was thinking, What were they thinking about?" Hoheisel said. "Humans are earthbound creatures and they were probably glad to get out of this artificial environment."

The poetry reading at Phoenix Square Coffee Shop is Feb. 1 at 5:15 p.m. The Columbia Memorial Museum in Nacogdoches is displaying a collection of memorabilia dedicated to the shuttle. In Hemphill, a memorial service is being held at Hemphill First Baptist Church.

Columbia 10th Anniversary events piece

UNPLANNED DESTINATION by Peter Hoheisel, published in the 2012-2013 edition of the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas

 Unplanned Destination:

An elegy for the seven adventurers

who dared the heavens

 

I.

An ordinary Saturday.

A blue Texas sky, and the sun shining.

A warm day on the way,

A reprieve from winter

When, suddenly, they fell from the sky.

This was no metaphor.

I was in my cabin, and with

The electric heater humming,

To take the chill off morning

A boom, and after-shock like thunder rolling,

took me away from newspaper and morning coffee

to the yard where I looked around and asked myself “Has Dallas been nuked?”

Later, talking with a friend,

I learned that, like Icarus, Columbia had

Fallen from the sky, and debris like

grisly rainfall,

was littering the East Texas landscape.

But this was no myth.

And so, exactly one hundred years, after the

first bumbling awkward lift off

from Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers,

Shade tree mechanics and inventors

Launched us upward for twelve seconds,

and after we reached the moon, planted human feet

on that spinning wasteland, this….

this… this what? Accident? Tragedy?

How quickly life can be snuffed out,

The body shucked off, one minute alive and

Full of physical intent, and in an instant

Hurled into the heavens, into Heaven.

And this is no metaphor.

                             

And they, seven Icareans, who dared

The heavens, dared fate, themselves

With their craft, fell into the

Piney woods of East Texas and Louisiana,

fell with the vehicle they had

trusted and relied upon with their lives.

II.

On that first day of February, a clear day

With hints of springtime, the god of the Old Testament

was in charge.

Not the kindness of instant snuffing

out of the candles of their lives; not the decency of instant

cremation.

No mercy for them that day, that clear day

in February full of innocence and the promise of springtime.

Instead, the gross parts of bodies, wrenched from spirit, falling

to earth, littering the countryside, along

with metal and plastic.

The soaring spirits, the courageous hearts, the artful craft

which incarnated the best the mind of man

could do, reduced to these:

a helmet, a shoe, part of a wing:

What was once an incredible

Creation, the human body, and the body

Which carried it boldly ascending

to the sun, is now debris:

Stuff, things, chunks, aftermath, chaos.

And body parts falling to earth,

are no metaphor.

III.

Those who learned of this event,

and especially we who live in East Texas,

who heard the thunder, who felt the shaking,

could also have been snuffed out, in an instant,

had a chunk of debris landed in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

I, in my cabin, with coffee and newspaper,

Was spared once again as my mind drifts

Back to that time when I sat in the

Heart of downtown Detroit.

Four august Republican

Delegates were dining, sitting over supper

In the wide open ground floor

of the atrium of the Renaissance Center,

when a sound like a shot startled our ruminations.

Someone from high above

had dropped a heavy glass which  exploded into a

Thousand tiny fragments when it hit the floor next to us.

A three foot difference, could have ended my

Life in an instant, or left me a drooling

Vegetable in a wheelchair,

A ward of the state of Michigan.

That glass was no metaphor.

And once again, on February first, the year two thousand and three,

my luck held. Nothing from the sky dropped on me.

I was out of the path of things falling from heaven.

IV.

Circumstance, Time, Space. Why these

Seven? Why now? Why not the next flight?

Ignorant preachers, and Muslim fanatics,

Will perhaps draw some

Lesson about sin or hubris, as if God manages

each individual molecule of the

Universe, unable to face the

Real terror that perhaps the God of Chance,

Or Circumstance, or Chaos, the Watcher

over this Wasteland, has a say in things;

And that sometimes things just go

Wrong for no reason at the wrong time.

Humans hate the irrational,

regularly pretend it does not exist,

even though our lives are ruled by emotion and image,

and most of our choices are driven by myths written on our hearts.

There must be a reason.

There must be a reason.

There must be a reason. Musn’t there?

Why did not, that huge chunk from the nose of Columbia

Crash through the roof of my cabin and

Launch me into heaven? Is there a

Reason? Did angels

Divert it, because God still has some use for me

In this body, on this earth, at this time, or

Did it just happen that way? Does someone

Win the lottery because God intends them to,

Or is it numbers, chance, chaos?

What is metaphor? What is reality? Who runs things?

Surely, someone does.

V.

And, in the end, what is there to say about this?

The human thirst to do what has not been

Done before, to see what has not been seen

Before, to risk our lives, to lay it all on the line in order

To know, fuels our race.

Will our benign and beneficent

Government, will our schools, our lawyers

our mothers, be able to breed this hunger out

Of the human race?

No, none of that will cease.

It is our craziness that often saves us.

If Paul Gaugin had stayed in Paris and grown

Rich and fat and faithful, would we be better off, or

Did he bless us all by running off to Tahiti?

Was it sane, of Charles Lindburg, to set off in

The spirit of St. Louis across the long and lonely

Miles of potential death on the way to Paris?

Why did he not stay home and sip

Martinis at poolside in Florida?

Would not this have been more sensible?

VI.

And what were they thinking,

What were the ruminations of our seven crazy Icareans,

When they were twenty minutes from touchdown

In the tropics of Florida?

Shapes and curves, and the feel of one’s feet on the

Ground; swimming in a pool; a glass or two, or three,

Or four, or five, or six, of wine; making slow

liesurely love with long langerous touches

of warm, human earth-bound flesh; a steak, ribeye,

slowly grilled over charcoal; the scent

and touch and taste of earth, dense and erotic.

It will take millennia and millennia and

Maybe a few more to make us into beings

who are all head with nothing below our navels.

Pure thought is perhaps our destiny,

But not yet, not yet.

VII.

Five score years ago, Two bachelor brothers

Defied the pull of earth’s gravity

With man made power, launched an era,

A century which saw men walk on the moon,

Leave human footprints on that cold, black,

bleak place of dust and rock.

Our seven now are launched to an

Unplanned destination, the ultimate human

Unknown, where some claim to have gone,

And returned from, but nothing is really known with certainty.

The logic of Socrates still makes sense.

Death is either the portal to fresh

Individual opportunity

(Socrates survives).

Or nothingness, reversion to mental sleep,

the blank unremembering before our birth

(Socrates is gone).

Either of which is okay with him,

Because, should Socrates survive, he will have

stimulating discussions with the philosophers who

have preceded him into death, and should

Socrates cease to be, since there is no he

to experience the lack, there will be no loss.

VIII.

There is then, nothing really to grieve, nothing to say:

Having “broken the bonds of surly earth,”

lacking weight, density, space and time,

being soaring unfettered souls,

these brave seven, Husband, McCool, Clark, Chawla,

Brown, Anderson, and Ramon are indeed in a better place,

because these things, time, space, our bodies

limit the infinite lust of our hungry souls.

The physical shackles us to one tedious step at a time;

our fear of death prevents us from

living for the moment, and devouring all

the good, all the joy there is, without guilt,

without regret, and without shame.

Our seven Icareans, are either free spirits

Roaming a fresh new world, or are

Nothing, feel nothing, know no lack, and so, either way,

neither pity nor tears are needed by them, but rather

in our Brave New World of no risk,

our world which consumes us with lust for what we

lack, and fear for what we might lose, perhaps we need them.

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