28 07 2010

We came in our virtual droves
To watch her rove for the very first time.
Not yet beautiful, or elegant – none watching
Could ever claim that of the white metal box
Balanced on its six fat, coal-black wheels.
She sat there, frozen in the floodlights’ glare
Like a robot fly trapped in sky-blue amber,
Or a captured and chained alien machine,
Surrounded by wide-eyed scientists, shining
Snowman-white in their oh-so-funny bunny suits.
Some standing, some kneeling, others lying flat
On the sterilised ground like snipers,
Long-lensed cameras, not rifles, levelled
At the creature crouched there before them; all
Waiting for it to move, all waiting breathlessly
For proof its wheels really could carry its bulk
Across Barsoom –

Then one by one they were gone,
Leaving the Clean Room silent and still.
Just a single blue light, stolen from the TARDIS roof,
Blinking slowly in the corner…

I watched through four layers of glass, the first and last
Separated by several thousand miles, smiling as one by one
The engineers and techs returned and, urged on by furiously-typing
Ustream viewers – many playing truant from their
Jobs in schools and banks and bars – waved at
The camera from the floor; self-consciously at first,
Then, the party mood taking hold, more boldly:
One bravely broke into a robot dance,
Arms and legs jerking stiffly to our delight; final,
Definitive proof that rocket scientists are people too…
But as we cheered and laughed, behind him
The rover, offended by this mocking of her kind,
Said nothing. And stubbornly refused to move.

Suddenly a veritable invasion of Bunny Men –
The Clean Room packed again as The Big Moment
Approached. The rover, surrounded, brooded
On its cobalt coral mat as stalking techs walked this way and that
Around her, taking up position as the time ticked by.
Gingerly, two took up the braided, tree-trunk cable
Connecting her to her disembodied brain and we knew
Her Time was near –

“She’s moving!” I called out across the room
As, without warning, the black barrel wheels began to turn,
Rolling the rover across the floor, snail-slow at first,
But oh-so beautifully!
“It’s alive!” a happy Ustreamer typed; another tapped “WooHoo!”
As MSL slid silently across the blue…
One day those wheels will roll o’er Mars.
Scrunching and crunching over Ares’ ancient rocks,
Carrying Curiosity, her cameras and computers
Across the Big Country landscape of the next New World.
And each sol they do, back here on Earth
A thousand unashamed rover-huggers will remember
The pride they felt the day they saw her take
Her “baby steps” First Drive…

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Note #1: Thanks to The Planetary Society’s blogger extraordinaire Emily Lakdawalla for the animation of Curiosity, left…

Note #2: I should point out that the techs and engineers were going on a break when they were doing their stuff; they weren’t meant to be working! 🙂

Lutetia In The Light

12 07 2010


For all these years you were merely

A smear of light through our telescopes

On the clearest, coldest night; a hint

Of a glint, just a few pixels wide

On even your most perfectly-framed portraits.

But now, now we see you!

Swimming out of the dark – a great

Stone shark, your star-tanned skin pitted

And pocked, scarred after aeons of drifting

Silently through the endless ocean of space.

Here on Earth our faces lit up as we saw

You clearly for the first time; eyes wide

With wonder we traced the strangely familiar

Grooves raked across your sides,

Wondering if Rosetta had doubled back to Mars

And raced past Phobos by mistake –

Then you were gone, falling back into the black,

Not to be seen by human eyes again for a thousand

Blue moons or more. But we know you now,

We know you; you’ll never be just a speck of light again.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010


This poem was featured on the official ROSETTA blog the day after the encounter.

Thanks ESA! 🙂

“Two Explorers”

12 07 2010


Cook, standing with feet apart on Endeavour’s rolling deck,

Feels what as he sees Point Hicks protruding from the southern sea?

As his ship rides the roiling waves, great gouts of foam and spray

Exploding from beneath her bow, how does he feel as the salty air

Scrapes his face, stinging his wide-with-wonder eyes?

Does he know the world will never be the same after that day?

Does he sigh as he shields those eyes from the savage sun

“All maps are wrong now; all charts can be tossed

Over the side, for there is much more to Terra

Than we even dared to imagine…”?

Centuries pass… until, at last, a metal and glass machine,

The likes of which never appeared in even Cook’s most

Fevered dreams, cuts a swathe through waves of a different kind:

Waves of ancient martian dust, duricrist and silica statues

Carved by Meridiani’s Michelangelo winds into ripples

Of winding serpents tails and swirls;

Her long shadow’s cast across the desert by the shining sun,

Draping it like a cloak over an epic land of rocks and stones and sand;

Dwarfed beneath a huge, huge sky, a high

Cathedral ceiling painted shades of peach and pink…

No birds wheel o’er her Endeavour; occasionally a mere

Hint of cloud, a fluff of lint drifts, wraith-like,

Above the faraway hills, past a Sun any humans watching

Would call “shrunken”, but being the only one Oppy

Has ever seen seems a perfect size to her unblinking eyes…

We are all Cook now. Standing on this rover’s tilting deck

As she crests the silent cinnamon surf; we are Oppy’s crew,

Clinging to her camera mast, swinging from the insulated cables

Rigging running down her sides, peering from the Crow’s Nest

Of her dust-etched Pan- and Navcam eyes.

For, at least in spirit, countless curious Liliputians

Ride this rover now; crowds of invisible ensigns sail

This sandship galleon – her hull creaking under the weight

Of her virtual passengers and their expectations – as she crosses

This ocean of rust-hued waves, each one of us

Waiting, waiting for that first precious, priceless

Glimpse of Cape York, where our long-awaited landfall

Will be made; each of us desperate to be the first

To type “Land Ho!”, knowing our words

Will then echo around bedrooms, studies and snugs,

Classrooms and cubicles, spread out around the world.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010


An illustrated  poster version of this poem is available here: