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… to my poetry website! Just click on one of the tabs above to read my astro-poems about Mars, the Mars rovers, and more.

If you’re more interested in the universe and the beauty of the night sky, this page “Out There” is a good place to start…

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I LIKE TO THINK

Almost everyone with even a passing interest in “space” knows the story of Laika, the Russian dog that flew into space, though few of them know the true, horrible story of her death. But very few people have any idea that on October 18th 1963, a small black and white cat called “Felicette” was launched into space and returned safely to Earth.

Why? Why is the story of the first “space cat” known by so few people? Maybe it’s simply because she wasn’t a citizen of either of that time’s Space Superpowers – she was French, not Russian or American – so her flight wasn’t seen as particularly newsworthy,  little more than a distraction as the US and Russia tried to beat each other to the Moon. Maybe it’s because Felicette didn’t actually go into orbit, but only flew on a suborbital “hop”, a fifteen minute up-and-down again trip. Maybe it’s because, in the few grainy black and white photos we have of Felicette, in contrast to the happy, grinning expressions on the faces of space dogs like Laika, Belka and Strelka on their gleaming, technicolour photos Felicette looks anxious and frightened; one photo I found during my research shows her hissing, teeth bared, looking very angry. Maybe it’s because in the “official photo” of Felicette released to the press at the time she has a ghastly block of electrodes embedded in her skull, looking like some yob lurking in a park had superglued an obscene Lego brick to her head just for a laugh, so newspaper and magazine editors didn’t report on her story for fear of her image distressing readers. Or maybe it’s because her story had a less than happy ending: instead of living a long and happy life after her return, like Belka and Strelka had before her, Felicette was “put to sleep” so she could be disected and her body studied by scientists wanting to see how, or if, she had been affected by her journey into space…

Whatever the reason, 56 years ago today a small cat – a beauty, black and white, with wide, alert eyes – was crammed into a miniature iron lung which was in turn squeezed into a capsule on the top of a French sounding rocket which then carried her into space – and no-one is talking about it. Well, as an amateur astronomer, a writer and a cat lover I’m talking about it; I’m on a mission to get Felicette’s story “out there” and to make sure she is honoured and respected in the same way Laika and other more famous animal astronauts are. I’m giving talks about her, writing features about her and I’m working hard to write a book about her too. But, for today,to mark the anniversary of her historic but overlooked flight, here is a new “astro-poem” about one of the unsung heroines of the Space Age. It was tough to write, and some of you may find it tough to read, but I think Felicette deserves to have her story told honestly. I don’t expect you will enjoy reading it, but if it touches you in some way perhaps you could take a moment to retweet it on Twitter or share it on Facebook or wherever you came across it? I’d be very grateful.

Thank you.

Stuart Atkinson

October 18th 2019

 

I LIKE TO THINK

 

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I like to think that, in a different corner of the Multiverse, you survived.

There, you didn’t lift your curious eyes;

There, when He came looking for cats to send into space

He never saw your face because

In that universe you wisely stayed in the shadows

At the back of the cage, hiding out of sight

As the others leapt into the spotlight,

Meowing, dancing, prancing with delight,

No idea what he had planned as they nuzzled his hand,

Just excited to be going to a new forever home.

 

Silently, you watched them go, leaving you alone,

Rejected for being too dull, too sullen, too quiet

And shy, judged to be undeserving of the honour of flying

Through the sky to play amongst the stars…

 

Instead another cat took your place in history,

Had silvery electrodes embedded in its brain,

Was twirled and whirled in a centrifuge, bruised like old fruit.

They were crammed into that Iron Maiden capsule, not you;

Shrink-wrapped in a strait-jacket of buckles, belts and straps

Before being blasted into space,

Returning to Earth fifteen minutes after climbing  a single rollercoaster hump –

Then carved up like rump steak in the name of “Science”.

 

But what happened to you?

 

I like to think that shop door opened again the next day

And this time you were taken away to a home of your own,

With a roaring fire to lay beside and enough head scratches

And belly rubs to last the rest of your final ninth life.

I like to think you passed away on your sad owner’s lap

Peacefully, with words of love whispered in your ears,

Not drugged on a cold, stainless steel slab

And cut into pieces by “boffins” in masks.

I like to think you died of old age,

Not “euthanised” like our universe’s Felicette – betrayed and slain

By those she had trusted to keep her safe;

The same smiling women and men who softly stroked her head

For the cameras before shaving it and ramming

A shiny circuit board through her eggshell skull.

I like to think you dashed crazily about the house chasing toys,

Skidding on the floor, crashing noisily into cupboards and doors,

Nipping unprotected ankles and wrestling balls of wool

Before nestling in a young girl’s arms and purring loud enough

In your sleep to drown out the sound of the TV

Showing Armstrong walking on the Moon.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2019

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Jess

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I opened the cat box door and she flowed out like tar.

Head down, huge round eyes sweeping left and right,

Left and right, invisible searchlights looking for a place to hide,

Frightened by every alien sight and sound around her.

 

And then she hid.

 

We first found her folded up behind the freezer.

Crumpled.

Contorted.

The dusty power cord a noose looped around her neck.

Flushed out from there she fled behind a chest of drawers,

Flattened onto the floor, so small,

Cowering in a gap no wider than a paperback.

Looking down I saw terrified beady eyes staring back at me,

Dry with fear, pleading “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!

LEAVE ME ALONE!”

 

The windowsill was her next sanctuary.

At least we could see all of her now –

A quivering black and white thing,

Pressed so hard against the glass I feared it would crack

And she would fall through to land

On the yard’s hard stones far below.

But she barely moved at all – a skinny statue

Hidden behind a protective wall

Of ornaments and vases, refusing to come down,

Refusing even to make a sound –

 

Until she saw me.

 

Then, a teeth-bared DON’T COME NEAR ME! hiss

That rose to a demonic screech.

Eyes on fire, claw raised ready to strike, ready to slash my eyes

To ribbons if they came within her reach,

She looked at me with such fear and hate

Painted on her haunted, gaunt face I had to look away,

The pain was just too much.

But…

“I’m not giving up on you, you little witch…” I told her

As she hissed and flashed her claws like Wolverine

Every time I glanced in her direction.

 

Time passed…

 

Then she was in The Cage.

Not as a prison; not as punishment,

Just a way of “getting her used to you”.

More room; access to water, and food;

Even a toy or two to play with.

A heaven for any cat, surely?

But she just lay there brooding beneath her blanket,

Angry and alone in her own private Alcatraz,

Eyes glaring at us through the fabric’s folds.

Less terrified now but not trusting, still scared,

And always daring me to come just a little closer

So she could score her claws across my face…

 

Fast forward to today.

 

She’s curled up on my lap now, a tiny thing,

Deep in sleep. The TV’s on without the sound

So I can hear her breathe, more important to me

That anything anyone could say on that huge flat screen.

She’s facing me, head resting on the pillow of her paws,

Snoring softly, whiskers and nose twitching,

Eyelids fluttering, not a care in the world.

She’s been on here for hours and will remain for hours more

As if glued in place; if she moves it will only be

To stretch out to her full draught excluder length,

Roll gracefully onto her back and fill the gap

Between my cramped legs like treacle poured from a tin;

Chin in the air, paws pointing everywhere,

A black and white rag doll with a lolling head,

Dreaming on her favourite bed.

 

Before this nap we played.

She has a pet shop’s worth of toys

Now – of course, it’s The Law – but no fluffy ball

Or catnip-soaked, feathery fish can compete

With The Stick, with its old bootlace wrapped

Around its end, tied to a tattered toilet roll,

That she chases for hours, chirruping with delight

As she fights it. It’s The Best Game Ever –

Until the laser pointer appears

Then she flattens herself against the floor

Like a Labrador preparing to chase a ball

And waits…and waits… eyes flashing

With the thrill of the hunt to come –

 

And then she’s off! Paws patting and slapping furiously

At the red spot as it dances around her.

She pursues the pesky scarlet dot everywhere.

Floor! Chair! Floor! Chair! A bouncing, tumbling,

Fumbling lunatic, streaking across the floor in hot pursuit –

 

And then she just… stops.

Playtime’s over. Tired now.

Sinking her claws into my knee like ten tiny ice axes

She drags herself up onto my lap

And, after turning around ten times, deflates,

Pouring over my legs again, a black and white stain

That will take hours to remove.

And that’s it. The day is now officially on pause

Until her paws move again.

 

Play, sleep, eat, repeat. Play, sleep, eat.

A perfect life. And now she slyly

Opens up one jade green eye

And looks at me. No hissing now; no flashing claws;

Just quiet adoration before falling asleep again.

Safe.

Loved.

Home.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2019

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Peggy

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She never raised a paw in anger to me; nothing but love

Was ever painted on her tiny tapering face.

She didn’t so much walk as stalk across the floor,

Her always-out claws, shattered hips and arched spine

Made moving in straight lines from As to Bs impossible.

And often she would just sit there at my feet,

Staring, her hazel and gold dragon eyes locked on mine

Like feline phasers and I’d wonder what she was thinking,

What memories were rising to the surface as she looked into me.

Sometimes in her sleep, with eyelids twitching and tiger-striped

Legs kicking a nightmare would finally catch her

And she’d wake with a start, wobble over to me, shaking,

Clamber onto my chest and rest her face against mine,

Needing to be near me until the shadows of her past

Faded away for another night.  I swear,

If I could go back in time, steal a TARDIS,

I’d find whoever made my beautiful, huge-hearted

Girl into the bag of broken glass that rested its head on my lap

While I made mosaics of Mars, stitched together images of Pluto

And Rosetta’s tumbling, crumbling comet

And break their teeth, make them limp,

Hack off whichever cruel hand they used to cut off

Her tail and laugh as they wailed.

 

Maybe somewhere in the Multiverse she lived a normal life,

Without that pain. I like to think so.

But I know she loved her time with us;

Loved being plucked off the ground and held

Against my chest, nestling under my chin; loved Riverdancing

On the pillow behind me at 4am, wowing “Now… Now…”

Again and again and again – a rude awakening two hours

Before I needed to be up; loved lapping water

From her shell-shaped cup, the only one she’d use;

Loved making me surrender every prawn or piece

Of chicken from every sandwich I ever tried to eat,

Leaving only bare, buttered bread behind for me;

Loved draping herself over my shoulder like a sash,

Eyes flashing, purring like a chainsaw; loved pushing away

My laptop screen when I really needed to write…

 

One memory shines lantern-bright:

Night falling at Kielder… a soft breeze whispering through

The northern wall of trees and her nested in my arms,

Only half awake, eyelids heavy, barely open

As we stood outside.

No-one else around; the only sound the wind chime tinkling

Of the twinkling stars coming out above us and her soft breathing.

Already halfway to a dream, there was no fear on her face,

She was safe, at peace with me, bathed

In the light of a million distant suns as the turning of the Milky Way

Gently rocked her to sleep…

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2017

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Waking Opportunity

 

Maybe, if we all look to the sky

On the next cold, clear night,

Seek out Mars shining there like

A red-hot coal and wish really hard

Opportunity will wake.

Children do it all the time

And it seems to work for them.

On Christmas Eve they lie in bed,

Eyes squeezed tight, fighting off sleep,

Hoping to hear the stairs creaking

As Santa creeps down to leave

Gifts beneath their tree – and next morning

There they are.

When a tooth falls out they hide the white nugget

Beneath their pillow, wishing and hoping

For a calcium-deficient fairy to swap it

For a coin – and one magically appears.

Why can’t it work for us?

For two long months now we’ve waited

For her to phone home, checking our laptops

And phones to see if someone at JPL

Has Tweeted “She’s alive!”

But all we hear is silence.

Although her dust-curdled sky

Is clearing now, the softly-falling fines

Leaving Endeavour looking even rustier than before

Our brave girls sleeps on, deep in

A power saving mode computer coma,

Unaware of the sols passing,

Every marmalade-hued sunrise and sunset

Going unseen.

So maybe, if we all look to the sky

On the next cold, clear night,

Seek out Mars, and wish really hard

She’ll hear us, open up her gritty eyes

And with a yawn come back to life.

 

Let’s try.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Peggy

Peggy

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Another Storm

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I’ve been here before.

Many sols ago I rolled to a halt

As the sky went strangely dark,

The Sun fading to a dull red spark.

I just waited that storm out,

Watched the Sun come and go,

Ghostly clouds of dust blowing over it

Day after dreary day

Until eventually they drifted away

And I finally felt Sol’s warmth on my back again.

 

But this feels… different;

This time I am scared.

I had no chance to prepare!

Suddenly the barely-there air was syrup-thick with fines

And I looked up to see a tsunami

Of cinnamon rolling across the sky,

Devouring the Sun like a dragon,

Day turning to night before my stinging Pancam eyes –

 

So now I sleep. But the evil dust

Invades my robot dreams;

In the darkness I see no electric sheep,

But as the tick-tock of my systems clock

Echoes down Perseverance Valley

Powder-puff grains rain down on me silently.

I feel each and every one as it lands,

Snowflake-soft, and as the wind wafts past my wheels

I feel helpless and alone.

 

Back on the world I once called home

They sit and wait for me to wake,

Staring at their tab-cluttered screens,

Fingers tapping impatiently,

Countless cups of coffee left untouched

As they whisper “Hush…”,

Imagining that if they just listen hard enough,

Through the moans and groans of the storm

They’ll hear me yawn…

 

 

© Stuart Atkinson July 2018

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Independence

 

Note: this is a transcript of a short video clip recovered from Mars in 2094, after the end of the War of Independence. Experts agree that the video was shot by one of the Year 3 class from Tharsis Academy but have been unable to establish their identity.

The video, known as “Y3-X1”, begins with a panning shot, showing a group of native martian children, very tall and slender, seated in a rough circle around an adult figure, presumed to be their teacher. The group is sheltering inside an inflatable dome, an emergency shelter of some sort, and are wearing full EVA suits with their helmets on their laps or within easy reach. The suits look worse for wear, dusty and dirty, with many repair patches visible. Outside the shelter it is night: the martian landscape is in darkness, but the heavens are beautiful, ablaze with stars, and the Milky Way is airbrushed across the sky. Here and there other lights can be seen moving slowly across the sky – ships from Earth taking part in the naval blockade of Mars meant to cripple its fledgling independence movement. Occasionally sparks of light glitter in the sky, followed moments later by a flash of light on the horizon beyond the shelter and a shaking of the camera, as missiles fired from the ships strike unseen targets on the surface. With each flash and rumble the children appear more frightened. The teacher, smiling reassuringly, begins to speak. They all reply as one.

 

Children – when will Mars be free?

“When Olympus is an island,

Set in a shining sea,

Then she will be free…”

When will Mars be free?

“When white waterfalls pour

Down Marineris’ walls,

Then she will be free…”

When will Mars be free?

“When Hellas is a lake

And we can play on its shore,

Then she will be free…”

When will Mars be free?

“When her vast dusty seas

Are covered with trees,

Then she will be free…”

When will Mars be free?

“When rain falls from the sky

On a warm summer’s night,

Then she will be free…”

When will Mars be free?

“When her sunsets are red

Instead of cold blue,

Then she will be free…”

A distant ‘boom’ is picked up by the mic, and the camera shows the children exchanging nervous glances. The teacher smiles at them reassuringly and continues.

When will Mars be free?

“When Earth lets us be

As great as we can be,

Then she will be free – “

 

Another ‘boom’ sounds, louder this time, and the camera shakes more violently. The children are shown holding hands, looking more frightened. The teacher continues.

 

When will Mars be free?

“When we can watch Phobos rise

Without tears in our eyes,

Then she will be free – “

 

A much louder ‘boom’ sounds, coming from a closer impact. The camera shakes very violently and shows a juddering view of some of the children clutching at each other, very scared. The teacher continues, louder and more defiant than ever. But when the camera zooms in on the teacher’s face it is streaked with tears.

 

When will Mars be free?

“When babies stop crying,

Afraid of the sky,

Then she will be free – “

 

There is a brilliant white flash which briefly overwhelms the camera’s sensors, followed a split second later by a deafening BOOM. The camera lurches violently, recording screams and a fleeting image of small figures silhouetted against blood red flames, then the picture dissolves into static before going blank.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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