Postcard — May 1, 2018, 11:36 am

The Real Thing

A visit to the space coast

Photograph by the author

We sailed over a bridge and onto the island, entering a sliver of Florida populated by protected wildlife and rocket scientists in equal measure. Dead snakes curled against the asphalt, and alligators napped in the canals beside the road. Bald-eagle nests dotted the spindly trees. I had been there before, but only to the visitor’s complex, which we whizzed past, its rocket garden visible from the car. The noses of unused rockets and historical replicas rose above the buildings, blossoming against the sky like metal flowers. This time around, I wasn’t there for the historical exhibits: the moon rock behind glass, the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This time, I was there for the real thing.

It was a mild Sunday morning in February. The traffic thinned as cars turned off into the parking lot, but we pressed on—past roseate spoonbills and white egrets standing knee-deep in swampy water, past an imposing security checkpoint where my host, Naomi, flashed her credentials. We kept going, deep into the heart of the Kennedy Space Center.

The facility completed its first launch in November 1967 (the uncrewed Saturn V rocket) and immediately became the American gateway to outer space. Every crewed NASA mission to date has blasted off from this sleepy Floridian island, and many of NASA’s uncrewed missions continue to launch from either the Kennedy Space Center or the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just a few miles east. These days, American astronauts heading for the International Space Station hitch rides to space on Russian rockets, but before the shuttle program ended in 2011, this was the island where those missions began. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Jim Lovell, Mae Jemison—their journeys all started here.

I’d come to see a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propel a Dragon cargo capsule into space. It wasn’t the first Falcon launch, and wouldn’t be the last, but it would be the first liftoff from launchpad 39A since Atlantis’s final mission, in July 2011. After six years of vacancy, the launchpad was once again bustling with activity. The Dragon would be headed for the ISS, bearing 5,500 pounds of supplies and experiments, including forty mice, used for studying bone density in zero G. The Falcon would jettison the Dragon capsule, then return to Cape Canaveral via remote-control landing. SpaceX, the private space-travel company founded by Elon Musk, has leased 39A from NASA for a twenty-year term. Their tenure had only just begun. One year after this re-christening, SpaceX would go on to successfully launch its first Falcon Heavy, a bigger and more powerful version of the Falcon 9.

While NASA focuses on its mission to Mars, the task of sending astronauts to the ISS and launching new satellites has fallen to private contractors. SpaceX isn’t the only company in the mix—Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation also have contracts with NASA for both crewed and uncrewed missions in the years ahead. The day when private citizens will be able to purchase a flight around the moon is not far off—in fact, two people have already given SpaceX a hefty down payment for a flight that is tentatively scheduled to launch as soon as this year.

We parked on the grass and joined the other launch spectators. The crowd was patient; many of us had been there the day before, when engineers scrubbed the launch seconds before liftoff due to a slight irregularity. There was a low throb of excitement, but no one would have been surprised if the launch was scrubbed again. The crowd was full of NASA employees, contractors, and their guests—folks who intimately understood what a slight irregularity could do to a rocket. In September 2016, one of SpaceX’s Falcons exploded during fueling, decimating the Cape Canaveral launchpad it was sitting on. No one was injured, but the explosion rendered the launchpad unusable, which brought SpaceX here, to 39A.

Lawn chairs, picnic blankets, and thermoses were strewn across the grass, and a low mist had begun to burn away in the mounting heat. There were NASA crests everywhere, on hats and T-shirts and water bottles, with a smattering of SpaceX logos. A thicket of tripods was set up at the edge of the cordon, bearing high-tech cameras, binoculars, and telescopes. The massive Vehicle Assembly Building, 518 feet wide and 525 feet tall, towered behind us. Off to the side sat an unassuming gray structure where Naomi programs software for NASA’s mission to Mars: a project that is years away from fruition but closer than folks might think, with tests of the Space Launch System (NASA’s most powerful rocket ever) scheduled in the next few years and a human expedition expected by the early 2030s.

I checked the time. T-minus twenty-eight minutes. The viewing area was spacious, the bleachers sparsely occupied. There was a steady buzz of anticipation coming from the waiting bystanders. I set up my own tripod away from the gridlock closest to the launchpad and focused my zoom lens on the Falcon 9 rocket, some three miles off, then snapped some test shots. The rocket was partially hidden from view by its launch tower, but the Dragon capsule was visible above the service structure, its nose pointed skyward. A water tower, emblazoned with the SpaceX logo, stood off to the left. Seagulls congregated in the foreground, swooping and gliding past that great metal bird that had yet to take wing. Between us and the launchpad stretched three miles of marshy wetlands. I checked again. T-minus 17 minutes.

At T-minus 5, voices began to intone stages of readiness over the loudspeakers. Intermittently at first, and then with more frequency. Eyes turned toward launchpad 39A. There was a collective hush, and the final countdown began. The crowd chanted along, four, three, two, one. . . . Clouds of vapor billowed from beneath the Falcon rocket, the glow of ignition bloomed, and then: liftoff. The hold-down arms released, and the rocket rose into the sky, buoyed by a thick, fiery cord of burning fuel. The roar took a second to reach us, but when it did, it was deafening. Slicing into the low-hanging clouds, the rocket disappeared from view, leaving behind a dull rumble that rolled across the field like a tidal wave.

Cries of delight and awe rippled through the spectators. I lingered, unable to look away. The rocket was gone, the clouds of steam on the launchpad had dissipated, but the glow of the launch was still etched into my corneas. As my fixation faded, I noticed the crowd migrating toward the other side of the viewing area.

“The landing,” people murmured to one another.

I followed, and there, seven or eight minutes later, we could just make out the Falcon’s first-stage booster cutting down through the thick gray clouds, the pale yellow glow of burning propellant dropping toward the earth to find its mark on Landing Zone 1. The sonic boom of reentry reverberated for miles. A perfect, bull’s-eye landing.

Officials immediately began to shoo us toward our cars. Just as quickly as the Falcon climbed into space, the crowd dispersed. The sky betrayed nothing of what we had just witnessed. As we made our way back to the main road, pure Florida blue shone through the parting cloud cover, and a pair of egrets stalked the grassy shoulder. Soon, the Dragon spacecraft would make its way into orbit, then to the International Space Station. I paused to consider where it was headed, and what would be next.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

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Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

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The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

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