One moonlit night, two young boys were out on a high hill behind their village playing with their bows and arrows. They lay down on the grass and gazed up at the moon. The youngest boy said “The moon looks just like my mother’s labret in her lip.”
“Shh, don’t say that,” said the older boy. “You’ll offend the moon and insult your mother.”
But it was too late, the moon darkened and a halo of rainbow colors surrounded the boys. Suddenly, the smaller boy disappeared.
Like the Tlingit children in the story, I loved gazing at stars and dreaming of the big universe, wondering what’s out there. “The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury was the first sci-fi book I opened when I was 8, while waiting for my mother in our public library. Because the “B” section was lower on the shelves, and it was near the circulation desk, I had access.
I opened the book, flipped to a story called “Kaleidoscope” and started reading. It changed my whole world. In my mind, I saw a spaceship explode and astronauts rolling in space and then one astronaut tumbling to earth where a child like me mistook him for a shooting star. I was both fascinated and upset by the story.
By the time I was in high school, I’d read everything by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. I wanted to explore what they explored in those books. I loved everything to do with outer space. Then one day, recently, I emailed NASA. I said to my partner, “Oh my gosh, I’m geeking out right now. I just sent an email to NASA!” and she replied, “And you’re going to get an email back from NASA.” And I did.
I was contacting (Steven) Scott McClure, a Tlingit aerospace engineer, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to interview him for this column. Scott’s role was directing other scientists and engineers in radiation analysis, which was an integral part of Mars Perseverance rover mission.
I’m delighted to know there’s been a Tlingit engineer working on the rover mission to explore the Red Planet. Here’s an introduction from Scott McClure:
“I am of the Raven-Sockeye Clan, Lukaax.ádi. My Tlingit name, which I received in Juneau when I was 7, is Hanate (English spelling). I understand it was the name of a Shaman. My mother was the late Amelia Cesar McClure, Kinats’oow Loodagoox. My grandmother was the late Mary Cesar, Yaakuxdaa.éit. Mary was originally from Haines. Her Aunt was Jennie Marks whose son was Austin Hammond. He was the house leader of Raven House in Haines.”
After discovering Scott and I both belong to the Raven moiety, I considered connections with our traditional stories and our love of science. Like me, Scott dreamed of space.
“I have a vivid memory of the Apollo missions. And, in particular the first manned moon landing. I was nine at the time. From that point on I was very interested in science and engineering in general.”
Ravens typically love shiny things, including celestial objects. There’s our traditional story about Raven, the trickster, who stole the sun, moon, and stars and then released them so humans could inhabit this planet. It’s fitting a Raven works at NASA. And it’s pretty cool that a Raven’s main role on this mission was to, “ensure spacecraft systems will survive and operate within the space radiation environment of Galactic Cosmic Rays, Solar Flares and Trapped Electrons and Protons in magnetic fields.” Wow!
Scott worked with the “survivability” of putting a robot on another planet. Scott said: “During the development of both Curiosity and Perseverance, I was the manager of JPL’s Radiation Effects Group. Our group is responsible for ensuring the survivability of electronic devices for all JPL/NASA missions. My group performed all the analysis and testing of the electronics used in the Perseverance.”
I reflect on how Tlingits have survived in southeast Alaska for 10,000 years, facing all kinds of obstacles. Now, here’s a Tlingit engineer leading the way to Mars, who problem-solved the issue of galactic cosmic rays. Likoodzí! Our Tlingit value of working together is an integral part of what makes NASA successful.
How did the boy solve the problem of rescuing his friend who the Moon spirited away:
After his friend disappeared the boy was so upset he grabbed his bow and arrows and took aim at the moon, but every time he tried to shoot the bow bent and broke and the arrows fell down. Finally, there was one bow left and it seemed stronger and that’s when he noticed a bright star next to the darkened moon. He aimed his arrow and shot at the star. The star darkened too once it was hit. He took that strong bow and aimed again and again, shooting each arrow toward the star until they formed a chain of arrows above his head, reaching up to the star.
In the Tlingit space travel story, the boy developed a unique method for traveling to outer space: a chain of arrows. He was literally “troubleshooting.” The boy tested out many bows before he found just the right bow that would shoot the arrows that incredible distance. The Boy-Who-Shot-the-Star then continued on a grand adventure — shamanic space travel. He prepared for his quest by arming himself with the power of plants and berries for the body’s fuel—some basic science—and he used devils club to get away from the Moon Chief! I certainly relate to this story: space travel and traditional plant uses.
The boy must’ve been afraid heading up that arrow chain into space, but he “dared mighty things” as do Scott and the people at NASA’s JPL.
As Scott says, “Working on things that have never been done before is a thrill. At JPL our motto is to ‘Dare Mighty Things,’ and we do just that. It is very satisfying to work on the design and verification of a system, and to see it work perfectly.”
As I watch the video and photos coming back from Mars, I’m hopeful someday Tlingits will travel in space. Scott says, “If your dream is to work in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), don’t give up hope. Long into the future, the demand will be high and the work is rewarding. We’d like to encourage pursuit of the STEM to all of our young people. Most industries and organizations have a shortage of people in these fields and demand will only grow. You will find in these fields that the vast majority of institutes and organizations adhere to Diversity and Inclusion principles as they are looking for the best people possible and know they will come from every ethnicity, sexual orientation, color and religion.”
Scott tells us: “Certainly, being named after a Shaman fueled an increased inquisitiveness in science.” Whether it’s using a super strength bow and arrows to engineer a pathway for space travel, or like Scott, develop ways to withstand significant radiation in outer space, the story of humans on this tiny blue planet includes our dreams and imaginations, our stories of stars and our modern stories of Mars. It’s all of it and all of us. The Boy-Who-Shot-the-Star traveled into space on a grand adventure to save his friend. There’s a saying: aim for the stars. Maybe we should. Maybe, while we’re doing that we’ll discover how we can be better humans, using the Tlingit values of working together, and if we’re able to recognize the beauty of diversity and creativity, our story will continue.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.