‘Moonbit’: Poems and Prose From the Apollo 11 Computer Code

News subtitle

Faculty members’ book comes out on the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

Rena Mosteirin ’05 and James Dobson are the co-authors of Moonbit, a book of experimental poetry and prose based on the computer code used to direct Apollo 11 to the moon on July 20, 1969.
Rena Mosteirin ’05 and James Dobson are the co-authors of Moonbit, a book of experimental poetry and prose based on the computer code used to direct Apollo 11 to the moon on July 20, 1969. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

This week, as Americans celebrate the moon landing on July 20, 1969 by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two Dartmouth professors are publishing a book of experimental poetry and critical commentary titled Moonbit. In alternating chapters of prose and poetry, they mine the surprisingly rich and playful language of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) code, which was used onboard Apollo 11 to guide the spacecraft to its destination.  

Moonbit will not get you to the moon,” writes James Dobson in the introduction, “but seeks to reclaim the text that did this, as a site for artistic exploration.” Dobson, a senior lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing and the recently named interim director of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, and Rena Mosteirin ’05, a poet and lecturer in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, co-wrote the book.

Dobson and Mosteirin, who are married, began planning their collaboration in 2016, when the AGC code was published on the website GitHub.

“We were both really excited when the code came out and we were approaching it in different ways,” says Mosteirin. “We kept finding things that we wanted to share with each other. Over breakfast, I would say, oh, did you see this? And he would say, well, did you see that? It was almost like an Easter egg hunt to find really interesting things in the code.”

Mosteirin decided to write experimental “erasure” poems using snippets of the AGC language.

“You have a source text, and you excise most of it, and you’re left with certain phrases that give you a different read,” she explains.

For example, one poem, Erasable Assignments, begins:

First pass succeeding
pass thru star
occulted star not occulted

matrix valid for W
matrix invalid for
no higher priority

transearth slow down is not slow
is desired
body rates computed

Mosteirin says the programmers did not see themselves as part of the military industrial complex. “They were counterculture. They were against the war in Vietnam. They embedded into this code really important cultural flags I think that they were hoping people would find later, about the Watts riots, about Shakespeare plays. They weren’t just writing for the machine.”

That’s why the Apollo code invites more than one kind of reading, and writing, Dobson says.

“It’s about 1960s culture, yes, and it also expresses an eternal desire for exploration. It’s not just functional, not just designed as instruction for one specific task. It’s created by humans for human readers, as well as the machine. And it still speaks to us now.”

Dobson and Mosteirin took their title from an onboard toggle switch—called a moonbit—that allowed the Apollo astronauts to alternate their representation of space. One position put the Earth at the center of the universe; the other placed the moon in that central spot.

The book itself toggles between poetry and prose, and between the two authors. “This is a collaboratively authored work, much like the object that inspired it,” says Dobson.

Mosteirin sees Moonbit “almost like Origami, with the different parts folding and connecting in different ways.”

It’s also, in her view, a feminist work—in part because it recognizes the contributions women made to the Apollo code writing and production team. In addition to the groundbreaking leadership of  Margaret Hamilton, who was famously photographed standing beside a stack of computer printouts almost as tall as she is, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016, women technicians played a largely unheralded role braiding together strands of wire through the metal cores that stored the Apollo computer instructions.

“Books are coming out now that will suggest new ways of thinking about Apollo 11, but many repeat the triumphal top-down masculine narratives of Cold War technoscience,” says Mosteirin.

Both authors hope that the release of their book on the anniversary of the lunar landing will help readers see that historic moment in the context of current events. “We were on the brink of a nuclear standoff with Cuba. We were close to nuclear annihilation, but instead of going to war, we went to the moon,” says Mosteirin. “They weren’t developing this technology to launch a missile or invade Vietnam. That’s what makes this code so appealing to poets and to humanists.”

A print and online version of Moonbit will be available from punctum books starting July 20, as part of Dartmouth Library’s open access program whereby authors receive funding from the library to offset publication costs if those companies make their work available for free.

Charlotte Albright can be reached at charlotte.e.albright@dartmouth.edu.


Charlotte Albright