When I was a kid I watched the moon landing on television. The images were grainy and the grown-ups were talking through the broadcast, so I moved about two inches from the set. I think my enchantment with science began that night. The Moons of Jupiter is one of the products of my fascination.
The play takes place in the future. The global water shortage has sucked the earth dry. Water is only available through black market traffickers at impossible prices. The only thing left is vodka. A female astrophysicist, celebrating her birthday in a bar, tries to buy a glass of water. She has been working on an instrument that retrieves water from space. Suddenly the sky opens to reveal Zeus and his three daughters Aphrodite, Athena and Artemis. Zeus has a plan to abandon earth entirely, but his three daughters make a pact to help this woman save the earth. Athena sends four scientists down (Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein). Artemis and Aphrodite try other techniques, but nothing works. The Goddesses finally have to travel through the crack in space themselves and the bar becomes crowded with science and mythology. The Moons of Jupiter explores the history of science, the future of planetary travel, and the courage and necessity of looking toward the unknown for solutions.
CHAVA: No water at all, not a teaspoon full?
BARTENDER: Not a drop, Lady. More Vodka?
CHAVA: All I want for my birthday is a glass of water. I want ice cubes.
BARTENDER: Don’t do this to yourself.
CHAVA: My father told me about the ocean. Dolphins…
BARTENDER: I can get you a pill.
CHAVA: I don’t want a pill.
BARTENDER: Thirst gets inside your head and makes you crazy.
CHAVA: Thirst is an essential mechanism of balance. If the water volume of the body falls below a certain threshold, the brain begins to falter.
BARTENDER: I don’t want to know the science, Lady.
CHAVA: From 6 to 10 per cent loss of hydration, you experience dizziness, headache, tingling in the limbs, difficulty in speaking, inability to walk. At more than 10 per cent dehydration, delirium is common, and the senses fail-
CHAVA: You have trickle somewhere. I know you do.
BARTENDER: Listen. Fire’s getting closer.
CHAVA: I read an article about Firemen this morning. Apparently, they have learned to control thirst better than any of us. They have been known to use their own drinking rations on a fire.
BARTENDER: Brave guys, firemen.
CHAVA: You are lying to me, aren’t you?
BARTENDER: Sometimes there is a water trafficker in the alley. But he hasn’t been around for over a month.
CHAVA: Do you know EUROPA?
BARTENDER: No. She come in here?
CHAVA: She’s the fourth smallest moon of Jupiter. Lines and cracks wrap the exterior. Chaos Terrain. Dark bands centered with white. Evidence. Of water. Oceans of water just beneath the moon’s icy crust. Possibly warm enough to sustain life. Clean, usable water. Europa is my life’s work.
During my research for the play, the first scientist I met was a Mars Climate Specialist. I spent hours with him in his NASA office at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A few years older than me, his love-at-first-sight with space didn’t happen with a moment of patriotic success (Neil Armstrong’s small step in 1969) but with an American failure in 1957 when Russians won the space race with Sputnik. He watched that mission on television, swearing to his little kid self that he would one day bring America to his favorite planet: Mars.
When I entered his office, I encountered a huge flock of Mars globes flying from every possible surface. He explained his missions to me, telling me he’d “been to Mars” three times. For his first mission he had to raise over 80 million dollars for his climate instrument which was part of the Mars Climate Orbiter, designed to function as an interplanetary weather satellite. This is how that mission is listed on the NASA website:
Mission Type: Orbiter
Launch: December 11, 1998
Launch Location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
End of Mission: September 23, 1999. Lost on arrival
Engineers concluded that the spacecraft entered the planet’s atmosphere too low and probably burned up. He told me it was the most heartbreaking thing he’d ever experienced. He had come to work and watched the spacecraft through the controls every day for over nine months and then one day it just disappeared. It was like losing a child. I asked what he did next. He had a drink and started raising money for the next mission. On that one, his instrument blew up 6 months out. A third mission also ended badly. Finally, in 2004 two rovers – Opportunity and Spirit – landed on Mars with his climate instruments. He was kind enough to let me watch the landing on a NASA screen with 3-D glasses.
From this man I learned the nature of true experiment. Scientists expect failure, even welcome it in order to gain information. Artists pay homage to failure: “Fail better” said playwright Samuel Beckett. But we don’t appreciate failure when it comes. The NASA experience deepened my commitment to experiment.
Later in Greece I met Eleni Thomai Chatzichristou, an astronomer. We began to collaborate on a project that unified The Moons of Jupiter with her research. It linked issues of insularity and sustainability using the issue of water shortage (a reality in the Dodecanese islands where we were working). Moons of Jupiter/ Journey to the Stars was constructed as an interdisciplinary project that focused attention on climate change and global water shortage, linking science with theater.
When the play was produced for the first time in Boulder, Colorado we opened the show in the wake of a devastating local flood. The post show discussion was conducted by a well-known climate specialist, an astrophysicist and the mayor. One young man raised his hand and asked: “We see the problem. From your vantage point as community elders what advice can you give us?” The mayor made a statement about the lazy narcissism of the young man’s generation, the Climate Specialist told the young man to read more. The young man looked stricken. A young woman stood up and shouted: “The universe belongs to us!”
ATHENA: Feel the screams of desperate nations?
ARTEMIS: See the sinking of creation?
APHRODITE: Hear the aching lamentations?
ALL: Of the entire universe?
ATHENA: Women, men and babes in arms,
ARTEMIS: Frogs and lions, bees in swarms,
APHRODITE: We should have been their shield from harm.
ALL: We should have saved the universe.
ATHENA: The wicked wait for an open door.
ARTEMIS: The thirsty curl up on the floor.
APHRODITE: Losing time in the water war.
ALL: The Universe was a groovy thing, there was a flush of pride on the angel’s wing,
ATHENA: From a galaxy to a super string,
ARTEMIS: From amoeba worms to the birds that sing,
APHRODITE: From the lusty thrust of an illicit fling,
ALL: The universe was a pretty thing.
ATHENA: From subatomic particle to an event horizon.
From Black hole to neutrino, to the element of iron.
From silicon and sulfur, magnesium and nitrogen,
To Carbon, and uranium, oxygen and hydrogen. Decipher space, compute, perceive, Examine, think, discover, weave
The truth about the universe.
ARTEMIS: All life is going down the drain with oil slicks and acid rain. UV rays pour down through sky. And pesticides fog up their eyes. For fur and shells and horns and teeth, Rain forest wood and skin and meat: No dodo bird, nor green tree frog. No kakapo, nor pygmy hog. No Great Auk bird or pampas deer, Tasmanian Wolf, nor Tarpon steer. Hunt your prize. Eat your fill. Cut your tree. Skin your kill. Your warm wet ball ain’t blue at will. And one day soon all will be still
Unless a change is braved in the universe.
Jessica Litwak is a playwright, performer, educator, puppet builder and leader in the field of socially engaged theatre. She has a BFA in acting, an MFA in playwriting, a Ph.D. in Theatre as Leadership and Change. She is the Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective, a core member of Theatre Without Borders, a Fulbright Scholar, and the founder of Artists Rise Up NY. Her work has been published by Theatre Communications Group, Applause Books, Smith and Krause, No Passport Press and The New York Times. Her award-winning plays have been translated into three languages and produced through the world.