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Poets in space

WITH the next space shuttle launch, much will be recorded of the wonders of space. Scientists will write learned tomes about weightlessness and how elements so familiar on earth react under the strange new surroundings of the cosmos. Engineers will examine the physical laws of interplanetary travel. But there will be no poetry in their recountings, for as they tell it, the world beyond our biosphere is bereft of poetry: dark, silent, and indifferent. This is unfortunate for the space program and disappointing for the millions of Americans who in their own private flights of fancy accompany the astronauts on each mission, for as Aristotle noted: ``Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.''

Where is this universality of the age of space exploration? Where are the chroniclers of space -- the Raleighs, Orellanas, Coronados, De Sotos, and Saint-Exup'erys of NASA? Alas, there are none. Scientists, engineers, physicians, and now schoolteachers, senators, and foreign communications specialists somehow manage to gain passage. But not poets -- the excess baggage of our generation.

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Perhaps this is why travelers to the stars returning to earth sound like inscriptions on picture post cards. Asked what the earth looks like from hundreds of miles away, they respond with: ``Great''; ``Super''; ``Magnificent''; ``Indescribable''; ``Breathtaking''; ``Fantastic''; and ``Beyond description.'' There is no poetry, no romance, no nobility of spirit, only the everyday recital of the laborer back from the job.

If NASA had imagination, it would forget the politicians and PhDs, and book a young poet on its next space shuttle. The poet needn't sit and stare out the window, or curl up with pad and pencil waiting for inspiration. Poets can read gauges and study earth samples as well as the next man. But the real payoff from such an assignment would be upon return.

NASA has given us excitement, suspense, adventure, and the vicarious thrill of space exploration. But where is, as Keats described it, the ``wild surmise''? For that, you need a poet.

Bennett Karmin is a writer at a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley, Calif.

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