In the smoking area behind Heavilon Hall, where Purdue’s MFA program lives, there’s a sweet gum tree that went to space. It’s called the Shuttle Gum. While you smoke your American Spirits and mull over your Nabokov you can read the plaque that explains Purdue Alumni Charles Walker donated five sweet gum trees that germinated during the 1984 Discovery flight. What must those space trees feel like, among the maples and sycamores grown in the Indiana soil? A little out of place, perhaps–like a writer among the engineers and physicists at a very big, very science-focused school that lists Neil Armstrong among its alumni.
Through July and August, Looseleaf, the creative writing department’s outreach program, ran its first summer workshops. Partnering with a local non-profit, three of us led a weekly workshop for K-3 students at a day camp for low income children. We readied ourselves for odes to ice cream trucks, swimming pools, and the joys of the no-homework life. Then our community partner announced the camp was going to focus on a theme, and they’d appreciate our compliance.
That theme? Space.
I’m one of those nerds who decided sometime in middle school to be a writer and never looked back, guidance counselors and student loans be damned. I haven’t had a science class since 8th grade. I don’t know shit about space. So to prepare, I went to the children’s section of the public library and gathered all the books about space I could carry. I languished in front of my air conditioner with titles like A is for Astronaut: Exploring Space from A to Z and Max Goes to Mars. I read biographies of astronauts tailored for the 2nd grade brain. I looked through books explaining the parts of a shuttle, and how astronauts go to the bathroom.
All of this was edifying, but nothing struck me quite so much as the space chimp. If you’re not familiar with Ham the NASA space chimp, open another window and Google him now. Coo over the cuteness of this chimpanzee who went into space in 1961, operating his capsule by pulling levers in exchange for banana pellets. Ponder the world that was, where neuroscientists and engineers—doubtless some of them corn-fed Boilermakers—devoted themselves to a happy chimp in a spacesuit. Then consider his animal contemporaries around the world: like Laika the pinko Soviet mutt who became the first animal to orbit the earth. Consider Felicette, the cat from the streets of Paris who blasted into space in 1963 and returned to earth via parachute. Consider how that cat must have muttered French expletives and longed for the Montmartre trash bins spilling fish bones and congealing béchamel. Merde.
What I mean to say is, my favorite British novels didn’t prepare me to write about space, but like tender-hearted writers everywhere, I love a good animal story. And having been a little girl with a collection of plastic horses and a tendency to bring home stray cats, I knew that our day campers would love these stories, too. I made a worksheet with pictures and brief biographies of these animals. Despite my space anxieties, I had found our first writing exercise.
Imagine you could travel to space with any animal you wanted. What planet would you go to? What animal would you take, and what would his or her name be? What would you take with you? Snacks? Toys? Books? What would you name your space craft? Write a story describing your adventure.
The results, as you can imagine, were genius. Across notebooks, beloved pets rocketed into space. Goats and giraffes and snakes ventured into the heavens with nothing but Goldfish crackers and moxie. My fellow volunteers and I took note. All that research into rockets and Gus Grissom was nice and all, but really it was these improbable things—a chimp manning a space shuttle, an Indiana tree sprouting in space—that gave our writers room to imagine.
Here are a few more prompts, for young writers ready to nerd out about writing or space
Think about all the constellations you know. Design your own constellation. Make up a name for your constellation and a story that explains how it came to be in the sky.
Design your own planet. Draw a picture of it. Describe the weather. What grows there? Does anyone live there? What do they look like?
Imagine you’re an astronaut, resting in your shuttle. Write a diary entry describing your day. What did you see? How long have you been away from Earth? What did you eat? Who are you traveling with?