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Cassini Spacecraft: A Paean


You are in your proximal plunge phase now:

predestined flash at Saturn’s limb

signaling oblivion

after all you have done


which means this is the best we could

come up with

in the name of

planetary protection for a few icy moons


which means you are now mortal

as we

and we are gifting you

death with dignity, though


brilliant as you are for a 1990s vintage

robotic space probe,

you have never heard of

Oregon or Washington or Doctor Jack.


It isn’t about you really but a

suspicion of microbes and that extra large

side of plutonium you swallowed before

we launched you cheering like fools


believing like fools that you were

the super bright child who would achieve

all you eventually did.

It was a very big deal, that plutonium


thing.  Some people worked to stop you

before you started

because they wanted planetary protection

for their part of our planet and maybe


they were right to say that

but I also knew the launch vehicle

was designed to not fail,

that I had lain awake nights like a worried


father who just heard his son

(I shouldn’t have told him)

is working alone at the booster test site

re-routing cables and logic


so that everything would be perfect

this time,

nothing like the nozzle autoclave in Pueblo

that sent its doting expert seated to monitor


on the 2.5 ton lid with it through the ceiling

and into the parking lot

a hundred yards away, nor

the crane that dropped


a booster segment and its own

counter-weights to crush that kid Big Al

and send ignited chunks

of rocket propellant like flashing harpies


scorching those who crouched

in apparent safety away from the fray,

aware the subsequent initial test firing

went horribly wrong because we were


young and did not know how to persuade

our leadership

we needed the few extra dollars

and hours to analyze in three dimensions


nor read a paper twenty years

before that would have told us

the propellant could

collapse and choke the flow of fire


sending a Promethean fist through

the casing to unzip the booster’s

imperfectly reckoned heart,

send walls of the twelve-story high


test stand to

the corners of that multi-acre complex

burning down the mountainside.

A redesign, five test firings, and one


successful launch later we were sure

again.  Or at least as sure

as fools like us could be

with an over-arching need to know


what Saturn would tell us should we

return with you

our proxy

because Voyager said we should.


Voyager is like you. And not, demanding

her own price of commitment

through voices like Sagan’s and Stone’s

with Andy Ingersoll reminding everyone


how unremarkable we seem now

we have troubled to look outside. 

Like you she carries

her own eco-threatening life source


which is why

you must take this proximal plunge;

unlike you she is immortal

because her encounter with the giant


was no more than a glimpse and assist

to continue on to the stars

we hope

eventually accept with empathy


her fizzled radio-isotope heart

along with recorded voices of Earth

we hope

gift more than relics of our vanishing.


Voyager-2 followed -1 by a few months,

data from their flybys enough

for us to send you gifted proxy

to poke beneath the murk of Titan,


atmospheric moon larger than our own,

peer into

the swirl of Saturn storms each

peer to all the gathered clouds of Earth.


Forgive us if our heads are turned

from voices named Webster, Johnson,

Pilker, Porco, Green,

confirming the verdict of unremarkability


while you continue portfolio entries

of the remarkable,

as your focus shifts introspective

through grazes between the planet


and his plane of rings,

registering a last set of tallies for

impacting cosmic dust and magnetism,

sequenced commands that must summon


for you completion: our own storms now

distract us bearing innocuous names

like Harvey, Irma, Jose,

wind speeds unimpressive maybe


for a gas giant like the one you orbit

and must soon embrace.

They’re enough

for us in our messier mortality


wishing at this moment for protection

from our planet’s

warmed vicissitudes.  Forgive us

while we pick our retracing way


through neighborhoods that forget

us, forget

that just last week we

tended lawns like routine discoveries


in our individual star systems

suspending belief in our mortality.

We learn again such fluffy lives

will dent when touched


like so many Hyperions shut where

no insulting light should glimmer.

We don’t forget

your likewise mortal mission.


You traded infinity for affinity

hanging around

as John Denver once crooned

becoming a thing that we believe in.


After twenty years of watching

it remains to reckon the full measure

of knowledge uneclipsed

because we sent you:


lakes of Titan aslosh those methane

crusted shores and plains

glimpsed as parachutes of the Huygens

probe collapsed nearby its landing;


Enceladus ice jets stark like Bailey’s

beads emerging from totality

to paint the system’s E-ring

like Renaissance annunciations;


rings ranged thick as Rocky Mountains

displaying for you their leaking wrecks

and pulverizations,

spokes, propellers, shepherd moons


wading without smile among annuli

of their own making

like childhood images of magi

or patriarchs unswerving in the sand,


at times Dantean Malebranche

urging the trudge

of smoky wisps

along the rounds of cosmic shrapnel.


You are in your proximal plunge now

having spanned nearly half

Saturn’s 29-year march of seasons.

For you they end here.


One cannot help but wonder if old

Giovanni for whom you are named

in that last blind year

no longer equal


to his task of topographic reckonings

(he reduced the estimated area

of his adopted country) still asked

to visit the telescopes his own hands


had placed at the Paris Observatory

running fingertips along the cool brass

of oculars and fittings,

secretly desired an end


more like yours

sliding open eyed toward that body

of swirls and polar hexagons made larger

than we could have known to hope.




previously unpublished

© 2017 David W. Parsley

Parsley Poetry Collection

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David, OMG, I know nothing and yet this actually made some sense to me.  The rhythm is amazing making the poem easy to read. Who would have "thunk it" just glancing at all those technical words?   I expected to poop out half way through or earlier but I traversed easily to the end.  I'm not going to pretend I'm smart enough to understand it all. But I'm a step closer.

I am linking this poem from my explanation of Paean or Panegyric Ode.  Hope that's OK.

Great writing.



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Fascinating subject matter dealt with in an intelligent and entertaining way. Coincides with my reading of Dan Brown's "Deception Point" ; which although fictional, contains various allusions to the political, practical and secretive vested interests. Much food for thought as I recall how Carl Sagan said that practical space travel for humans, is as far in our future as Columbus is in the past.

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On ‎9‎/‎19‎/‎2017 at 1:29 AM, Benjamin said:

Fascinating subject matter dealt with in an intelligent and entertaining way. Coincides with my reading of Dan Brown's "Deception Point" ; which although fictional, contains various allusions to the political, practical and secretive vested interests. Much food for thought as I recall how Carl Sagan said that practical space travel for humans, is as far in our future as Columbus is in the past.

Hi Geoff, your comments add further insights, as always.  The most informative articles (for the layman) describing the Cassini-Huygens mission I have found are these:




As for practical space travel for humans, I fear that Dr. Sagan may be right, though you never know when a breakthrough might suddenly occur.  For my part, I was the principal designer for the Electrical and Flight Instrumentation Subsystem (EFIS) for the Solid Rocket Motor Upgrade (SRMU) on the Titan 4B launch vehicle, serendipitously carrying the same name as the intriguing moon that was a principal subject of the Cassini-Huygens mission.  When the going got tough (and as you can tell from the poem's narrative, it was sometimes very tough), my colleagues and I often encouraged each other by reminding ourselves of the need to meet the launch window for this historic spacecraft.  For nearly a year, I was also technical lead for the effort to develop the Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system for the dual-strap-on SRMU, so I took particular pride in the fact that the spacecraft was launched into its interplanetary trajectory with such accuracy, that a trajectory correction burn was not required.  The resultant fuel savings proved a critical enabler for the extended mission phases that revealed so much about Enceladus and Titan, as well as studies of Saturn's atmosphere.

Advanced as it was (at the time America's heavy lift rocket), this propulsion system was still of the chemical variety.  That kind of propulsion would demand thousands of years just to reach any of the nearby stars.  What Sagan was alluding to was propulsion based on more efficient ion thrusters and solar sails which also are not sufficient to human lifespans, since they will require several hundred years for the same trips.  As he correctly concludes, our only hope lies in the harnessing of energies that for now defy our capability to sustain, channel, or control: nuclear fusion and anti-matter conversion.  The horizon does seem far.

Thanks for the comment!

 - Dave

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Tinker, I am delighted that you would select this poem as an example of the form.  Many thanks for your note of appreciation on the poem's movement and artistic elements, as well as telling me that it was informative for you.  I would like to share a link to what I consider the most beautifully artistic (and short) tribute to Cassini's final orbit and plunge:


Thank you! and enjoy!

 - Dave

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On ‎9‎/‎18‎/‎2017 at 8:31 AM, JoelJosol said:

David, I enjoyed reading it through to the end. The narrative and the philosophical mixed gently in a lyrical way. 

Very glad you enjoyed, Joel.  I could not help regretting the end of the mission, knowing my weekly status updates would now come to an end, with their reliable stream of new science and striking images.  It was like the loss of a friend, or at least the completion of a phase of life.  The enactment of the planetary protection protocol seems dignified and respectful, exhibiting a deliberated prudence we often miss.  That led to the whole death-with-dignity thing, and that to the themes of mutability and mortality, which then placed our own here-and-now in the context of this space exploration event, and on and on.  Thanks for responding with such understanding.

- Dave

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Dave, I'm sorry that I've taken so long to acknowledge this work. Please be sure I didn't overlook it when you put it up, rather I knew it deserved much more attention than I was able to devote until now. First, I had to read up on the paean, then I had to familiarize myself with the Cassini-Huygens mission, though you've encompassed the relevant details quite thoroughly in the work itself.

To my understanding a paean expresses triumph, and the probe's useful life was just that, triumphant, having lasted five times as long as initially expected. The quatrains make for easy reading and are a perfect choice for addressing the probe in the second person. Your personification of the craft, especially here:

On 9/17/2017 at 2:04 PM, David W. Parsley said:

You traded infinity for affinity

hanging around

as John Denver once crooned

becoming a thing that we believe in ...

functions to elevate its end-of-life fate from one of clinical disposal to an almost hominal level of martyrdom.

As I've come to expect of anything you post, this is very nice work. Thank you for sharing it here.


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