Wears a cape made from a child’s beloved blanket when asked.
Wears a corset after a C-section to feel like her insides will stay in.
Doesn’t flinch at the crash of ice-fall from the eaves.
Marvels at the orderly miracle of morning drivers actually slowing
to 20 mph in front of the middle school as required.
Knows that the word shuttle carries with it the bobbin traveling from
one side of the loom to the other, and also harpoon, dart, missile:
Once watched a robin peck and tear at a worm until it was in two
pieces, and then a second robin landed, ready for the shared meal.
Brings her children squares flavored like cheese, bears that taste of
graham flour, toast with the crust cut off, various seeds and beans
Figured it was a lie that we conducted nuclear tests in outer space
until she read about Starfish Prime.
Doesn’t tell her children about Starfish Prime or the rest of
Operation Fishbowl. Or about why they have to be quiet during
lockdown drills. Or about the C-4 wedged in her genetic code,
predisposition for spondyloarthritis, that she hopes they don’t carry
Feels guilty that she’s not preparing them for the rigors and
pungency of corporeal existence because she hasn’t told them these
Slows the car as she approaches a traffic armadillo flashing her
speed for all the suburban audience to see.
Displays a picture of her children prominently on her desk at work,
which is part of the formula for work-life balance. That and the
right shoes and quick-prep meals.
Doesn’t really like the word mommy, wishes she were Supermom or
Superwoman or just Super, nonessentialized.
During any shuteye, flies above her childhood habitat—crabapple
tree, cranny behind the pine, frozen-custard stand, highway
overpasses and interchanges—there and not there, trying to get
back to something she doesn’t understand.
Pretends she’s not Super so as not to embarrass the other parents
at afternoon pickup: wears the required athletic leggings and
minimal makeup, just a soupçon of eyeliner; lets her son chatter as
he tries and fails to buckle his seatbelt, holding up the entire line of
vehicles, until she unbuckles, runs around the car, and buckles him
in herself, despite his vehement and shrill protests.
Knows that Hans Mark, a NASA center director, thought in the
’80s that the development of Shuttle technology meant “even
poets” could go into space, “then share the experience with
everyone.” Turns her cape into an orange pressure suit, plugs into
the O2 line and the communications cap, packs a life raft in her backpack.
Suspects that those with large families think she doesn’t have
enough children, and others think she has too many, shouldn’t have
had any at all, the climate is cratering, the earth is feverish.
Prefers the third person, the distance it engenders, the way it makes
the quotidian sound like a myth, a cautionary tale, a hagiography.
How in such fiction she can have as many children as she wants,
can brag, blue-ribbon paragon, plucky.
Sometimes wants to visit Point Nemo, where space agencies send
orbital junk, all those boosters and satellites and failed space stations
rusting in the nutrient-poor water, just crabs and bacteria clustered
around the deep volcanic vents, no fish, the South Pacific Gyre
keeping organic matter and cool water away, no humans for more
than a thousand miles; wants to fly there with her animal-print cape
with the nubby gray side, spend some time alone in the quiet.
Try Staying Home
“If you think going to the Moon is hard,
try staying home.”
—Barbara Cernan, wife of astronaut Gene Cernan
Wally Funk (1962)
A pool the exact temperature of her body.
Her head covered in a plastic bag, her ears with headphones.
Nothing to hear but
the lockstep of breath.
Nothing to see but
the mirages a visual cortex
draws out of darkness.
You can’t feel water
when you’re immersed in it.
Decades later they’ll weight astronauts down
so they can stay forty feet below,
near the Shuttle mockup, neutral buoyancy.
Floating on the surface, face down,
the aviator stays in the pool longer
than any other test subject.
They have to tell her to get out.
This is the closest she’ll get to space for now:
adrift and tethered in a facsimile of flight.
Valentina Ponomaryova (Valentina Tereshkova’s launch, 1963)
Valentina’s colleague Valentina is vaulted into space
by an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Cosmonaut-in-training, Ponomaryova only watches,
her earthbound tailbone aching from
a hard wheat-field landing. She doesn’t know
yet about the cracks in her spine from parachute training.
She doesn’t know (but suspects)
she came in second because Khrushchev
liked Tereshkova’s blonde Jackie-Kennedy look.
The official line: the other Valentina
is the ideal proletarian heroine,
former textile factory worker.
“It was a terrible moment, when Tereshkova took off,
and we were left behind. They told us, Don’t fret,
you’ll all get the chance to go to space.”
Ponomaryova banks on a circumlunar flight
(cancelled), an all-female mission (scuttled).
The next female cosmonaut won’t launch until 1981.
Pat White (1968, Apollo 8 launch)
Twenty-three months ago her astronaut-husband died
in the char of a hatch-sealed capsule
pumped full of oxygen and lined
with loose wires. But Pat White
joins the other astronaut wives at Susan Borman’s.
Susan dithers, fidgets, a vessel of worry.
Drinks and hors d’oeuvres in a mid-century home,
cigarettes in front of the black-and-white TV.
In herringbone skirt and cream collared blouse,
dark circles under her eyes, coiffed blonde hair,
Pat watches Susan from across the room.
“Man is about to leave this planet
for the first time. Odds are against
a major systems failure, but
if one occurred, the men could
be lost,” a reporter intones.
The rocket vents gases, fastened to its gantry.
Susan can’t stop agitating her hands;
she closes her eyes in a kind of regret
when the countdown reaches zero.
The rocket rising is the proverbial
candle (let’s light this…), but inverted,
somehow always fitting in the square of the screen.
“It’s beautiful,” says Pat from
the back row of the gathered.
We see her mouth move but can’t
hear her over the thundering engines.
Frank Borman and his crew will be the first
humans to flee the grip of Earth’s gravity.
Fifteen years later, days before
an astronaut wives’ reunion,
Pat will choose to flee herself,
sawing off a lock of her hair
for Thanatos, holder of an inverted torch,
so he’ll approve her passage past life.
Ralph Abernathy (July 1969)
They must have been a sight: around 150 Americans,
mostly black mothers and their children,
walking with two mule-drawn wagons
through light mist and rolling thunder.
Ralph leads the Poor People’s Campaign
across fields near Cape Canaveral.
85 degrees and humid.
It is quite a sight, mules
with a backdrop of palm trees
and the thirty-six-story,
red-white-and-blue Saturn V rocket
ready to carry the Apollo 11 crew
to the Moon tomorrow.
“Rockets or rickets?” one sign asks.
“If it were possible for us
not to push that button tomorrow morning
and solve the problems you are talking about,
we would not push that button,”
the NASA administrator comes over to tell Ralph.
(There is, of course, more than one button,
and most of the “buttons” are switches.)
He offers tickets to the viewing stands.
“I want you to hitch your wagon to our rocket.”
The next morning, the arrival of the wave of sound
from the seething engines three miles away
throbs in Ralph’s torso, a formidable leviathan:
you are but a mist that appears for a little while
and then vanishes.
This is holy ground, he thinks. It can be more holy.
Kristin Fisher (November 1984)
Astro-tot Kristin is startled as her grandmother shrieks.
Just fourteen months old, she doesn’t understand
that the light-blue jumpsuit she’s wearing
is official NASA fabric, the bright nonstar
striding across the Houston night sky
is a Shuttle holding her mother, 180 miles up.
She knows her father is holding her, that it’s dark,
that the lake is sloshing under their dock.
Her mother, Anna, first mom in space,
has zipped herself into a sleeping pack
hanging from the wall. She doesn’t
know what to do with her head
without a pillow. She still feels addled
from the vestibular weirdness of microgravity.
Tomorrow she’ll frisbee-toss a satellite into space
using a robotic arm.
“How does operating the arm make you
a better mother?” a reporter asked before the flight.
“Oh, I don’t think it did,” she replied.
Kristin will write about her grandmother’s
screaming—that unsettling sound—
her mother’s celestial gallivanting,
as her first memory. “Well, that’s really nice,
Kristin,” the teacher will say, “but
you’re supposed to tell a true memory.”
Karen Nyberg (May 2020)
The fiftieth woman in space is now earthbound,
in her favorite blue paisley handkerchief dress,
waving at her husband. She can’t pass the yellow line
painted on the ground. They’ve quarantined together,
but still COVID-19, still flight protocols. He looks
like a twenty-fifth-century astronaut,
slick white flight suit, all slant and angle,
first NASA commander of a commercial flight vehicle.
Seven years since Karen last felt weightless,
one of only two women in space
on the fiftieth anniversary of Tereshkova’s flight.
“It has raised the question, among some,
of why a mother left a toddler at home
to follow a dream into space,”
the local paper asked then, the same
as “some” did of Anna Fisher.
“How is that different from any woman
or man that has a career and has children?”
her husband, Doug, retorted.
It’s 85 and muggy. Karen thinks of the chill
of the underwater habitat from years ago,
how she balanced in a moonsuit on the ocean floor,
metal frame strapped to her back, mimicking
lunar gravity one day, Martian another.
Karen watches her husband leave twice,
first in the newfangled electric car with gull-wing doors,
then in an explosion of kerosene and liquid oxygen.
This weekend, city centers are filling
with people protesting the death of a Black man
under the knee of a White cop.
“If the space community wants to unite people,
then it must make people feel like they are part of space,”
the paper says, “and that means being conscious
of where people’s lives are on the ground.”