It’s been a crazy few weeks with work, but thanks to Wayne, who took on the job of travel agent, we have booked the trip to the earthly haunts of Pioneer 10! Excited!

March 7-9, 2015 – San Jose and the nearby Ames Research Center. This is where NASA conducted all its communication with the probe.


March 10-13, 2015 – Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex SLC-41 where a launch of an Atlas rocket will take place March 12/13. The Pioneer 10 was launched on March 3 by an Atlas Centaur from Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36). Is that close enough?

March 14-16, 2015 – Washington, DC and the Smithsonian. I think I am the most excited about this stop, where I will get to see the replica of Pioneer 10.


A bit of history on the Pioneer 10 and why I still think about it

Launched in 1972, when songs like “If I could reach you” by the 5th Dimension and “Rocket Man” by Elton John were topping the charts, Pioneer 10 was sent into space to study Jupiter’s moons. They hoped the probe would last at least 18 months. It exceeded that. Pioneer 10 broke records, becoming the first human built object to reach Jupiter, the first earthly thing with mass to pass through an asteroid belt, the first to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

Thirty years later, Pioneer 10 was in interstellar space. The probe, equipped with several scientific instruments, also contained a friendly message for aliens. Engraved on gold-anodized aluminum, the plaque displayed directions to earth as well as an anatomically correct sketch of a naked man standing beside a woman without a vagina. Back in 1972, on the day of the launch, you could have tuned into almost any radio station and heard Helen Reddy sing, “I am Woman, hear me roar.”

On January 22, 2003, NASA sent its last signal to Pioneer 10. Scientists announced that the plucky, thrusting probe had run out of transmitting power. Journalists played the probe as human, saying it gave a “weak farewell,” a feeble cry. They said it was lost.  Pioneer 10 was not lost. It’s true that when NASA sent its last message the probe was 7.6 billion miles away, 82 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It’s true that at the speed of light the probe took 22 hours and 35 minutes to reply. But its trajectory had always been known. It was, and still is, heading toward the red star Aldebaran, the eye of the constellation of Taurus, and it should arrive there in roughly two million years.

The day NASA sent its last signal to the probe, the employees at the Ames Research Center held a little retirement ceremony. There was a cake, nicely decorated with an icing Pioneer 10, and everyone in the control room had a slice. They said that Pioneer 10 had gone “boldly” where no human-made object had gone before. They said that its signal was “barely a whimper.” They said something else too.

“We have a budget crunch,” admitted Larry Lasher, Pioneer 10’s project manager. “The data we’re getting now is not worth it.” And that’s not all. The probe’s DSN software had become obsolete. The probe was unable to understand NASA’s new computer software, and the only computer left that it could talk to was grinding to a halt. The probe had become a dinosaur. Pioneer 10 had given its last breath of data, and, without fanfare, slipped into eternal silence. That is not quite true. Its radioisotope power source was decaying, but after January 22, 2003, Pioneer 10 was still transmitting signals, it was just that we no longer listened.

Five billion years from now, our sun will expand into a giant red star, consuming the earth and everything on it. By then, Pioneer 10 may have encountered another body and been sucked into its orbit. It’s possible an asteroid or an interstellar dust cloud will hit it. Maybe an alien will blow it away. Most astronomers, however, predict that, given its trajectory, Pioneer 10 will just keep drifting onward. It will be cold where it sails, the temperature averaging -300 Celsius, the probe’s antenna pointing back toward home, toward a planet that no longer exists, where no one remembers, and no one forgets.


Pioneer’s Last Signal my First

Before Facebook, was my go-to place for procrastination. My favorite was viewing This Week’s Best and Worst Dressed List and trying to guess before looking at the critic’s choice whether Hilary Swank or Sandra Bullock had knocked their outfit out of the park. In 2003, another article caught my eye and then my imagination – “Pioneer 10 Calls Home Last Time.” I saved the article on to my computer. My attachment to the little probe grew from there.

Should I?

It’s been a few days now since I found out about my grant. Along with the flush of success came permission to dream. What if I did go on this extravagant trip to visit the physical places once part of the Pioneer 10?

The grant was for time to write. I need to fulfill that. But what if I matched it with savings and went on the trip? It’s amazing what getting a grant can do for a writer. It provides money, and that is huge. But what it does in equal measure is provide validation that what we are doing in our obsessed and penniless way is actually worthwhile.

I’m not rich. I need, if anything, to save far more than I do. And if I am going to blow some savings, what about doing something nice for my kids? What about replacing the fridge with its missing parts and loud hum?

My kids would want me to go. “If you can’t go on a trip at your age,” they’d say, “when can you?”

I’d need to take Wayne. He could drive me around plus he knows way more about space travel than me. I’m obsessed with a tiny probe turned zombie in interstellar space. I’m interested in what that means to me on a philosophical level.

Wayne understands the mechanics of how the probe got there.

If I’m going to do justice to this grant, I need to do this. What a rationale. The Canadian dollar’s down. It’s going to take a lot of carbon fuel. But the more I think about it, the harder it is to let the idea go.

What to do, what to do

So I have this grant which is meant to give me time to write, to finish my manuscript of poems about Pioneer 10, something I’ve been working on for over 5 years.

How many poems do I have?

About 23.

How many poems did I have 3 years ago?

About 23.

Each time I write a new poem, I throw an old one out. I’m not getting anywhere. Part of the reason is time, but I think it’s also because I’m struck by an image of the probe. The actual physical probe is not available to me, and I am a lyric poet. If I only contemplate abstractions, I lose my footing (maybe this isn’t so odd – abstractions have no gravity). Abstractions don’t change. For me to write about things that don’t change, I need to cloak them in things that do. In other words, I need to address the material world. By looking at objects carefully, by getting enough images firing, one hopes something meaningful and more abstract will arise. The consciousness of a poem, for me, is in its insight, its metaphorical truth. As Heraclitis says, “A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.” But to get to the hidden, I seem to need to start with the obvious. The Pioneer 10 is a tangible object made intangible by distance. It has turned into an idea, an abstract, a fixed, unchangeable thing. I need to make it real again. I’ve read all the probe-related material I can find. I’ve looked at countless rendered images of the probe. I’ve watched youtubes and movies. But I think I need something else.

Wouldn’t it be something to visit the Ames Research Centre where the probe was designed and where all the communication between the probe and NASA took place? What about Cape Canaveral where the probe was launched? And not long ago, I watched Captain America, and when the hero runs through the Smithsonian, I saw the Pioneer 10 (okay, its replica hanging from a ceiling. What a jolt of pleasure that caused.


Kettie Lester’s Song to Pioneer 10

I don’t imagine Kettie Lester was thinking of Pioneer 10 when she sang this song on November 4, 1964 since the probe hadn’t yet been launched. The Announcement of Opportunity (AO) to design the Pioneer probes, however, had (January 30, 1963).

Last night I heard Lester’s rendition at the end of the movie, Good ‘Ol Freda, and I was smitten with the voice, and, perhaps because I was thinking of Pioneer 10 (as well as the Beatles and their secretary), I pretended she was singing it to the probe. 🙂

Where were You on Thursday, March 2, 1972 at 8:49 pm?

I was probably reading in bed. I was 13 years old. If I knew that the Pioneer 10 had launched, it made no lasting impression. At 13, I was becoming more self-aware. It bothered me that I’d never be able to step outside of myself and see the world in any other way. It bothered me that I couldn’t make time stand still. When I wasn’t seized by existential angst, I was devoted to David Cassidy. Sometimes the two would merge. Once, in the backseat of my parent’s car, I made a concerted effort to remember an exact spot in the road along with the thought that attended it. We had just left a gas station in Pouce Coupe where my Dad had fueled up, and I had bought a waxed package of O Pee Chee gum with Partridge Family trading cards. The pink slab of gum was coated with a fine white sugar that powdered my fingers and David’s smiling face, and I fixed my mind on a dip in the road where the highway crossed the Pouce River and froze it with, “Never forget this moment.”


Chasing Pioneer 10

January 13, 2015, 1:30 pm: 42 years, 10 months, 10 days, 16 hours, and 55 minutes after the Pioneer 10 first launched into space, my husband Wayne emailed me at work to tell me I’d received a “thin” letter from the BC Arts Council. It was my fourth try, and every rejection I’d received had come in the same form.

“Open it,” I wrote, “get it over with.”

A few minutes later came Wayne’s reply: “I opened the letter from the BC Arts Council. Those darn guys anyway, how much did you ask for? I did read it twice though, just to make sure, but it seems they gave you the grant.”

Oh, fabulous day. Thank you BCAC.