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A question about technology from the portability of grandeur in the form of a prelude and fugue

[Note that this essay is also available with performance notes here.]

If anyone was wondering if I made it to Cape Canaveral for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour after making the NASA Tweetup list (“I could have missed the whole era,”) well, yes, I did.  Twice.   

And again my continuing journey requires an associative mapping through time to traverse.  Not precise, but necessary for me to maintain my location and direct my pivots.


Pope Urban II calls upon all Christians to join in a Crusade against the Muslims.  Before leaving town, Christian soldiers massacre the local Jews.  In Islamic Sicily they see very attractive pointed arches on the mosques they destroy.

Chartres Cathedral

1193 - 1250:
Stones placed on stone in a particular arrangement we call the ogival arch allow them to stack higher and support more weight than anything previously devised by humans.  These arches are the ones the Crusaders saw in Islamic architecture, and they are used to a particularly magnificent extent by the stonemasons constructing Chartres Cathedral.  So sublime is this structure that some still insist that the designer of the cathedral is God Himself. 

Martin Luther breaks from the authority of the pope, publishing his Ninety Five Theses.  In other writings he calls the pope excrement born from Satan’s anus.  Pope Leo X is no such thing.  He is the son of Il Magnifico, Lorenzo de Medici who runs most of the business and government of Florence, Italy.  Nonetheless, Lutherans start seizing Catholic Church assets in Germany.

1610, Venice, Italy:
Galileo publishes Sidereus Nuncius [The Starry Messenger], the first description of heavenly bodies observed by the use of a clever bit of technology he built himself, the telescope.  He sees mountains on the moon, moons around planets, and stars that had never been seen before.  The heavens just got bigger.

Claudio Monteverdi publishes Vespro della Beata Vergine [Vespers for the Blessed Virgin], an unprecedentedly massive multi-movement work for voices in solo, and various combinations, choruses, and instruments.  This magnificent sacred work is based on the prayers from The Hours of the Divine Office. Heaven just got bigger.

Johann Sebastian Bach born.

Also born, most likely, an unknown German boy in an unknown German city.  His name could be Gunther.  Gunther is the third to be born of his mother, but the first to survive more than two weeks.  His mother cradles her precious son in her arms and softly sings him a song she has always known.

Isaac Newton publishes Principia Mathematica, describing the laws of motion, laws of universal gravitation, and the methods of calculus which will soon allow the movements of the heavenly bodies to be known by humans. 

The Arp Schnitger Organ at St. Jakobi Church
Master pipe organ builder Arp Schnitger completes another gigantic pipe organ in Hamburg.  As massive as this four keyboard and pedalboard instrument is, it is also a very complex and delicate instrument.  Each of the thousands of pipes must be tuned to a precise frequency and must sound when a valve is opened on a pressurized wind chest by the force of a finger tap transmitted along a network of carefully tensioned wires, rods, and pivots from the keyboard. The smallest pipe is as small and shrill as a child’s pennywhistle.  The largest pipe – actuated by the lowest key in the pedalboard – is 32 feet long and creates a frequency below the threshold of hearing. 

Why would anyone create a musical instrument with a note too low to be heard?

There is no accurate way of determining longitude at sea, and the sea is what covers most of the Earth. This is especially problematical for maritime empires who view the entire planet and all its resources and people as something subject to their own plunder, exploitation, and colonization.  The British government forms the Board of Longitude that offers a prize worth more than 4,000,000 in today dollars to anyone with a method of determining longitude within 30 miles.  One sure method requires an accurate clock.  There is no such thing.

In an expanding Universe where humans inhabit a diminishing portion and where new discoveries lead to new questions and new doubts a German man who could have been named Gunther sits in a church listening to the organist play a choral prelude.  He may not even realize it, but woven into the hushed, complex fabric of the music is the song that his mother sang to him when he was an infant.  At the proper moment the organist taps one of the notes on the pedalboard and an unheard shudder embraces Gunther and all the others gathered in the church.  Gunther is completely overcome with emotion. 

James Cook born.

Master carpenter John Harrison builds his third precision pendulum clock.  From wood.

Often described as a “devout Lutheran,” and after a lifetime of service to the Lutheran Church including the last 23 disgruntled years at Leipzig’s Lutheran Church of St. Thomas, Johann Sebastian Bach completes the gigantic and breathtakingly magnificent Mass in B-Minor, a full Latin Catholic mass before being gathered to God a few months later. 

John Harrison completes the first accurate marine chronometer.  In order to prove its accuracy, it must endure sea trials.  If it passes those trials, it must be replicated by someone other than Harrison and that copy must also endure sea trials.  Harrison has been working on this project for more than thirty years.

Larcum Kendall completes his copy of John Harrison’s marine chronometer and it is entrusted to Captain James Cook to test on his second voyage to the “South Seas.”  His first voyage (on the HMS Endeavour) establishes Captain Cook’s bona fides as a master navigator.  Cook found that Kendall’s proof copy of Harrison’s marine chronometer “exceeded all expectations.”  For the first time, the positions of islands in the vast Pacific can be placed accurately on European maps.

A model of the Great Hall
Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer works on the design for the new Berlin.  The Great Hall will accommodate 180,000 people (and is big enough to house two Saturn V rockets had they existed).  Its dome will be 820 feet in diameter.  Speer ponders a problem: the hall is so voluminous that it will have its own weather and the breathing and perspiration of so many people may cause rain clouds to form.

As a boy he had instruction in music composition from Paul Hindemith but was hijacked by the dream of interplanetary space travel by rocket.  But now Werner von Braun’s rockets are going the wrong way and raining down on London.

I’m the keyboardist in a reggae band setting up for a gig in a concrete hall.  Reggae is drums, bass, and some other stuff.  The sound guy is tweaking the board when Crazy George asks us if we need help setting up the sound levels.  Yeah.  He walks over to a certain spot in the hall and removes his sandals.  “Crazy” is not his real first name.  He says that reggae requires solid low frequencies that are below the discernment of the ear and can best be sensed by the bare soles of trained feet. 

Our singer starts the set with, “Greetings in the name of the Most High, His Imperial I Majesty Haile Selassie I, Negus Negusti, Sata Amasa Gana, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, All-Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jah, Rastafari!”  Then the low frequencies of the bass and drum kick in and rock the people off their feet.

We consider what we play sacred and call it “Jah Muzik.”  We spell it muzik so it won’t be confused with the regular stuff.

Space Shuttle Endeavour
The newest Space Shuttle is named the Endeavour after Captain Cook’s ship of his first of three voyages to the “South Seas.” 

2010, November:
I attend Honolulu’s first live performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, since its publication four hundred years ago.  The performance at the Catholic St. Theresa’s Co-Cathedral is directed by the cantor of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.

The NASA Tweetup tent

2011, April 28 – May 3:
I’m one of 150 people pulled at random from 4,000+ applications to participate in the NASA Tweetup for the last launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour.  For two days we encamp in an air conditioned tent near “The Clock” and are treated to a list of educational presentations, tours, and excursions while we live tweet everything.  Astronauts tell us what it’s like to launch into orbit.  NASA’s Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati points out that we are now in cooperation with what was formerly a fierce adversary and collaboration has replaced competition with them.  Indeed, Endeavour visited the Russian Mir Space Station in 1998, a half dozen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, our fierce adversary of the Cold War. 

People find more exciting the presentation by the designer of the Lego Space Shuttle.  There will be a Lego Space Shuttle on board the for-real Space Shuttle Endeavour.


One of our excursions takes us to the iconic, cubic building known as the VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building.  It is the tallest single story building in the world and our guide tells us the building was originally designed to accommodate three Saturn rockets in progressive stages of assembly.  Parts would roll in, and Saturns would roll out to Launch Pad 39.  Its original purpose was to complete one Saturn rocket every week because that’s what it would take to maintain a permanent settlement on Mars. 

Chartres cathedral interior of roof
VAB interior:

At 526 feet tall, it can accommodate the highest spire of Chartres Cathedral with ease.  If that’s not impressive enough, our guide informs us that the interior was used for the filming of Iron Man as representing the scale of fictional futuristic tycoon Tony Stark’s manufacturing empire.  It is so tall and voluminous that the building has its own weather with rain clouds forming on humid days. Its designer is Werner von Braun.

With 2 hours and 36 minutes showing on the Big Clock, a component in the Auxiliary Power Unit fails. Launch scrubbed.  When will another launch be scheduled?  I extend my stay a couple of days.

My iPhone data before Apple 'fesses up and fixes it

In the meantime, “Locationgate” breaks.  It seems the iPhone collects location data and transmits the data back to Apple headquarters.  I decide to drive to Key West so I can get a map of my travels before Apple “fixes” it.

I stay a night in Key West and when I get back to Cocoa Beach, Twitter is blowing up with news that Osama bin Laden has been taken out.  It was done manually, not robotically.  There’s nothing about it in the papers.

2011, May 16:
Manned space launches naturally organize around religious ceremonial convention.  It’s a pilgrimage worthy of Chaucer – full of lore and fanciful imaginings, distant travelers, holy relics, miracles, and poetry. 

NASA Tweetup returnees.  I'm the Asian guy.

When the first attempt scrubbed, I hung out for a while until the Twitter chatter on the tech channels seemed to indicate that another attempt wouldn’t happen till the end of May.  So I made my way back across the North American continent, half the great Pacific ocean, then up Ward Avenue to Makiki in Honolulu.  When the next launch attempt was announced, I came all the way back.  If that had scrubbed, I would have probably done the whole thing over again.  And again.  Like all faithful pilgrims in history, I would have eventually taken up residence in the area, found employment and a wife, started a family, and stayed on and on with great faith to await the day of fire and thunder or until gathered to the Almighty.  My Florida tombstone would describe, “A good pilgrim who traveled far to witness the ascent of STS-134 but who did not live long enough.  At least he has a better view now.”  I talked to a woman who had lived in Orlando and drove out to watch a Shuttle launch more than a dozen times without seeing one.  So I was prepared.

During the first trip out I got to look at and touch many relics.  The things that look like Saturn F-1 rocket engines hanging from the Saturn V mock up (like the whale in Bishop Museum) aren’t mock-ups.  They’re real Saturn F-1 rocket engines.  A couple of them anyway.  And the others are made from real Saturn F-1 rocket engine parts. The thing that looks like a Lunar Lander is actually one of the Lunar Landers used in training. 

Holy relics: The actual Apollo 11 control room moved into an auditorium

A Disney-esque auditorium replays the launch of Apollo 11 using the actual equipment and computer screens from the control room. 

The whole “Space Coast” is packed with fellow pilgrims.  Hundreds of thousands travel from all over to spend the night parked at beaches with decent views.  Food trucks offer “astro-burgers” and bars always have “astro-beers” or whatever. 

The launches of the Endeavour and Atlantis will end the 30 year Space Shuttle project and bring the Cold War spawned manned space program in for a hard landing.  So too the local economy. I ask the manager of a restaurant what everybody’s going to do for work when the pilgrims stop coming.  “Leave.  If we can.”

My lucky pilgrim ID
For now, the pilgrims are still here.  With a NASA nametag and ID, I am of the elect.  I will be watching the launch next to The Big Clock. 

Of the 150 original NASA Tweetup invitees, 80 have returned.  More than half are women.  Just sayin’.  I was expecting most of the participants to be Science & Technology males, but half are female, and a significant number of the total are Arts, History & Literature types.  Yay for us.

We are informed that for the return, our tent will be gone, but we can watch anywhere in the field or in the two bleachers we see in news footage.  The launch is scheduled for 9am, and we can enter the premises as early as 3am.  I have gotten no sleep when I set out from my hotel in Cocoa Beach at 2.   

I’ve prepared for my complete lack of direction by studying maps, and programming my iPhone MapQuest app which proved reliable enough to get me to Key West and back to Cocoa Beach on my last trip.  But on my two trips and many days here, I’ve learned the route and the area and don’t need any help getting to the launch area.

I show my NASA lucky pilgrim ID to the security guard at 3am sharp and make my way to the parking area.  Before I get out of the car, I “drop a pin” on my iPhone’s Orient app so I can find my way back to the car after the launch.  I note that my iPhone is more than a thousand times more accurate than was sought by the British Board of Longitude.

A few of my fellow female pilgrims are already there, and we take up places at the top of Bleacher Two.  Most of the male pilgrims go to Bleacher One which has flat surfaces to place one’s computer.  It’s a free country.

As introspective and contemplative as I am, sitting in darkness waiting for the sun to rise is surprisingly uncomfortable and boring . We all worry about the weather.  Each day’s launch window is very tiny – like 5 minutes.  If something minor happens and you can’t launch during those 5 minutes, you have to wait at least another day.  So the whole wait is very nerve wracking. 

Finally, the sun rises on a Sturm und Drang overcast day, and at 30 minutes on the Big Clock I call it too close to launch to scrub on account of weather.  Those around me agree.

I remind myself that in order to attend the launch, I am missing Honolulu’s first live performance of Bach’s Mass in B-Minor.  The full Latin Catholic Mass is being performed at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, directed by the same cantor who directed the Monteverdi Vespers at the Catholic Cathedral.

I am trying not to let my hopes jinx the launch but the when the Big Clock gets to 2 minutes I start to think it really might happen.  We’re all standing in the bleachers and I’m peering through binoculars when at T -5 seconds a flash goes off and smoke starts pouring out one side of the launch pad.  Then a bigger flash as the two solid rocket boosters light up and the Shuttle jumps off the pad.  I put my binocs down so I can get visual context.  The Shuttle rises much more quickly than I expect from watching videos.  It appears to be some kind of living entity climbing into space rather than something making a mystical ascent.  It executes a quick twist, then arches backward.

It takes about 15 seconds for the sound to reach us.  At first it’s the mighty roar a director would order for the rocket launch in his movie.  But then the sound of the solid boosters cut in with a weird and somehow “primitive” crackling and rumbling.  It sounds like something utterly huge being torn apart.  It is a sound for the beginnings and ends of eras. 

They’ve warned us of the effect this sound has on people, and pilgrims will replay the videos they’ve taken of the launch, and even check the professional productions but the sound will not be there.  Pilgrims will wonder what has touched them, but those of us familiar with sacred music will recognize the sound as high amplitude subsonics.  Audio and video equipment can’t capture this sound, and even if it could, the sound can’t be reproduced on audio equipment. The frequency is just too low and the amplitude is just too high.  You simply have to be there and glory in the rich crackling frequency spectrum offered up by the combination of a half million gallons of liquid rocket fuel, and 2 million pounds of solid propellant blowing up in a synchronized counterpoint.

Pilgrim Tricia McKinney's video of our corner of the bleacher

For a moment, I hold up my palms to try to sense with my hands the vibrations I feel on my chest.  But then I quickly put them down afraid it might be taken as some kind of weirdo religious cult gesture.  I also resist the temptation to remove my shoes.  I estimate the lowest frequency to be below the 32’ pitch of a pipe organ pedal stop, although I think the 64’ pedal stop of the Mormon Tabernacle might match it.  I’ve never heard that live and I think I may avoid it in the future in any case.

The low cloud ceiling affords us only 20 seconds or so to actually see the Endeavour before it disappears.  Before piercing the curtain, it lights up the spot as though it were burning its way through.  The experience is really quite moving.  I see a man on the other bleachers openly weeping.  His name is not Gunther.

I’m afraid that exposure to all this expensive and sexy machinery might have turned me into some kind of techno-imperialist yahoo or NASA robot zombie hack.  But I have to say that this is one of the most impressive man-made spectacles I have ever witnessed.  And I break out into a response forbidden when hearing a great musical performance in a church.  I applaud.  In fact we all do. 

We can’t see Endeavour, but we can see the growing shadow of the trail.  And we continue hearing its roar for what seems like quite a long time.  In eight minutes or so it’s in orbit around the Earth.

About a minute after launch


So this was something of a modern consumerist pilgrimage after all.  After only two trips and no particular injury or deprivation to endure we have seen what we have come to see.  I feel no fundamental internal transformation about anything.  I don’t write my legislators asking for their support of manned space exploration because I still think the manned space program was a Cold War mechanism for the development of weapons technology and nationalistic propaganda, both of which are grave threats to humanity. 

And I’m not just being anti-technology, and in fact, I am a technologist.  I am against some of the historical reasons for the development of technology and most of all I am against the mindset that everything “out there” is available to our taking, enslavement, and exploitation. 

Some might say that small-minded self interest is what has driven humanity forward in the first place and that it is an inherent characteristic. But we humans, having grown conscious of our errors in the past can exert a superior influence over them now.

To that end I have a very hypothetical question to ask you. 

The Question:
When Captain Cook set out on the Endeavour, he expected to come into contact with people and civilizations he knew nothing about.  If our explorations continue, it’s reasonable to expect that as our horizons expand we will come into contact with others.  So, fellow human, fellow countryman if you are, and even if you are not, how should we humans of the Earth direct the development of our technology if the first extraterrestrial civilization with which we come into contact possesses the exact same level of technology and has developed it for precisely the same reasons we have?

H. Doug Matsuoka
7 July 2011
Makiki, Honolulu

[Note that this essay is also available with performance notes here.]


  1. Hey, good read, Doug. Perhaps a question, another perspective: What if ETs are already watching us or controlling our destinies? Like Arthur Clarke's story that Kubrick's 2001 was based on.

  2. A good read, Doug. Perhaps a question or another perspective: What if ETs are already watching us or controlling our destinies? Like Arthur Clarke's short story that Kubrick's 2001 was based on.

  3. Thanks Gary. Yeah, technological superiority doesn't mean being "better" and being able to resist a superior technology is definitely a skill we may need to cultivate.


  4. Very informative blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Cool.


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