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New UCR Poet Writes for NASA, Misses Launch


New UCR Poet Writes for NASA, Misses Launch

(December 21, 1999)

The poetry of Gary Soto, a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, is now part of NASA history, along with moon boots and Tang.

A poem entitled "The Boy's First Flight," was commissioned from Soto by the Art Program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "It will be an inspiration to NASA and the general public," said Bertram Ulrich, the space program's Curator of Art.

The poem earned Soto an invitation to witness a live shuttle launch. Soto even had airplane tickets to get him to Florida, but the technical and weather problems that delayed the most recent launch several times made Soto miss his window of opportunity. The shuttle "Discovery" took off to repair the Hubble Space Telescope Sunday, Dec. 19, without him there to hear the roar.

"I was sorry to miss it, but I couldn't keep changing my travel plans," Soto said.

Since the early 1960s, NASA has commissioned art from people including Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Judy Collins, Jaime Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. "Not only do these art works provide a historic record of NASA projects; they give the public a new and fuller understanding of advancements in aerospace," said Ulrich. Typically, he said, the art commissioned by NASA becomes part of exhibits that travel around the country.

Soto, an award-winning poet, came to UCR in July. He has written nine books of poetry and three young adult short story collections that speak colorfully about the ironies that abound in his working class Mexican-American neighborhood. His poetry is included in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

Soto's "New and Selected Poems" was a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award. In September he flew to Washington D.C. to accept a 1999 Hispanic Heritage Award in a ceremony televised from the Kennedy Center.

Raised in Fresno, Soto said his goal at UCR is to find and groom the next generation of writers ready to pull themselves up from working class neighborhoods. "I want to replace myself," he said.

His poem for NASA is reprinted below:

The Boy's First Flight

One side of our house was desert
And the other, the one facing east,
Was Eden itself.
I didn't know this until I bounced on a trampoline
And landed on the garage roof, me the unpaid astronaut,
Age nine, knees scuffed from a rough landing.
I looked about, stunned. A breeze lived
In the sycamore and a single-engine airplane
Hung by a thread of exhaust in the darkening sky.
This was 1961. I asked, "Is this for us?" meaning the bushel of stars,
Pitched and pulsating their icy thorns. The moon was a tiger's tooth,
Hooked in a frightening way. I walked back
And forth on the roof, arms out for balance.
I saw my cat and dog, and they saw me, perhaps in awe,
Because they did lift their eyes to me.

And now it's 1999, the end of the millennium,
And it's certainly the end of my knees,
Those springs long gone. A latch of rust groans in each knee-
How they would love that payload of a taut trampoline.
I see these children, how they jump, fall back, and jump again.
If only I could sit on a roof, in summer,
If only I could watch a Shuttle-what lever does the commander push
To make a smile on his face, her face? I'm in the dark, literally,
Ice cubes rattling in my tea. The crickets sing in the weeds,
And soon the Shuttle, dime-bright, will lift off
And pull away. My friends, my suited up pilgrims,
What news will you bring?


The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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