Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Weightless Air

The spider Arabella,1973

Yesterday I came across this article on the Smithsonian website:

Arabella and Anita had the right stuff–namely, silk for spinning webs. These two ordinary spiders were NASA’s first eight-legged astronauts! Anita and Arabella got their mission because a high-school student named Judy Miles wondered if spiders could spin webs in a weightless environment. She suggested sending spiders into space to find out. NASA space scientists liked her proposal and went to work designing special cages, lights, and cameras.
In 1973, Arabella and Anita blasted off into space for the Skylab 3 mission. On her first day in orbit, Arabella didn’t do well. She spun sloppy webs and obviously felt the effects of weightlessness. However, by her third day in space, she was spinning just as though she were back at home. Her webs were finer in space, which was expected. But the pattern remained the same. She proved that spiders can spin earthly webs in space.
Though Arabella and Anita have both died, their bodies remain at the Smithsonian, memorialized for their small, vital part in increasing our knowledge of space.

The source of this story is the book Odd Tales from the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), written by Peggy Thomson and Edwards Park.

Years before I read this article, I had a conversation with Josephine Jacobsen, a great poet and my mentor, in which she talked about the spider in space.   She wrote this poem about it. It was called “Arachne, Astonished:”

In our porch rafters spiders spin
ig webs that reach and tremble,
often with flies and sometimes moths hung in
the crosshatch of their dewy cables.

I cannot guarantee that friends will not die
or children put into practice what each learns;
but I thought that webs were a community
of architecture as unreconstructed as the fern’s.

Space’s amazed spider in her cage
is weightless. Fairly, one might expect her
to sulk in a daze, paw the air in arachnean rage
that good gravity monstrously should reject her.

Well, there are situations which ape
that of weightlessness; without guide-
lines,demand that thread from the guts take formal shape
while the cruelly uninflected voice says, “Improvise!”

O weightless, astonished Arachne, such
original alterations, situational spinning
of constructions! You frighten me very much.
Am I to understand, then, there is no end, none, to beginning?

But Josephine thought the spider died in space, and according to this Smithsonian article, it didn’t.
Josephine died in 2003.  I wrote this poem about here shortly after her death.  When you read it, you’ll see why I put it here:

One word singing
Poetry is one word singing one word singing
In the middle of the night.
Poetry sings what no one cries.
Poetry slips in between the covers of the facts. 

Josephine told me
The astronauts did
Take a spider with them.
She died there
In the spaceship.
Her net wouldn’t hold
In the weightless air.
Josephine told me
From her hospital bed
When she could not read or walk.
But she still sang poems
In the middle of the night.
Sang between the covers
Of her body
To the weightless air.

spider web: painting by Cyrille Jubert

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