Early May, 2018. “Why would you do that?” my son asked. “It’s a long way to go, to see something that lasts only a few seconds.” Yes, why? I’d just told Mike my plans. I would be traveling to Vandenberg AFB, California, for the rocket launch propelling his battery – the InSight spacecraft battery he built and tested – to Mars. He seemed genuinely bewildered. This from a guy who cheered the liftoff of Elon Musk’s cherry-red roadster on its cruise past Mars to the asteroids.
I gave the only explanation I could: “Your dad helped build the first Mars lander, Viking, y’know. You were born while Terry was on the Viking project. We sent out birth announcements – a poem I’d written, along with his drawing of the spacecraft lander. Terry was pretty proud of both you and the Viking,” I told Mike. “When we moved to Vandenberg you were in pre-school. He was the countdown manager on a Titan rocket program.
“And here we are – you, electronics guru at the aerospace company your dad worked at. Your battery will power the next robot. How cool is that?” He still seemed clueless, so I continued. “I have to go! To see it safely off the earth. I’m compelled to go, like those guys in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Maybe I’ll write another poem.”
I had another reason: Mike was ill. For years he’d been fighting cruel autoimmune diseases. Although he managed to work most days, sometimes he could barely walk, and his weight had plunged to a scary low. I was beginning to question his strength to survive. I needed to see the rocket launch; this battery was Mike’s biggest achievement. Somehow, I hoped, witnessing this event would give me… more hope.
And, too, it was for me, in that I wanted to go “back to the future,” to visit VAFB again where Terry was stationed for four years. I considered Vandenberg the launchpad where I was propelled into life, went to college, practiced creative writing, and supported the family’s love for rockets. Together we built hobby rockets, including the 3-stagers which flew up 2,000 feet. One day we visited a real Titan III-C, on its launchpad, not yet loaded with hypergolic fuels but nearly ready to fly. The open-house was to give families the opportunity to grasp what their spouses and fathers (mostly fathers, but some mothers, too) had been working on non-stop for weeks. The sheer height of the vehicle shocked me – fifteen stories tall – and the infinite number of wires/tubes/cables was daunting. We formed a queue to walk past, stopping to look up at the towering structure. When I thought no one was watching, I popped out-of-line briefly to touch it, not knowing why. The ice-cold metal provided an exciting chill. A sergeant confronted me, saying “Never do that again” and I felt like a criminal the rest of the day.
The next big thing I dared touch, decades later, was to be Michelangelo’s David in a Florence, Italy, museum. I’d taken up sculpting and fully appreciated how difficult it was to approximate the human body. I gazed at the monumental David, wanting to touch it even more than the Titan rocket. To feel a sculpture that contained Michelangelo’s DNA would satisfy something, but I still didn’t know what. Of course, tactile contact would be impossible because it was posed atop a huge base, barricaded with ropes to keep people like me away. However, I found another sculpture by the Italian artist, nearby, not so famous, not roped off. I sidled up to it, past the “Do Not Touch” sign, and laid my thumb on an elbow. The cold marble lent another chill thrill.
Hours before the blastoff of InSight (acronym: Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport), I flew Denver to Santa Barbara and rented a car. I’d reserved an SUV in case I had to sleep in it because this was a night launch, my first. I was to be at a meeting site at 2 a.m. so would arrive with my cup of coffee and a backpack that held two cameras and binoculars. I’d garnered a press pass – also a first for me – and was feeling grateful, humble, to mingle with esteemed members of the science and space news media. These were English, French, German, and Swiss journalists representing countries in the Mars alliance. I didn’t realize I’d be too tired to sleep in the car, but that quickly became the situation. Dying for a bed and shower, I searched for a room. There are hundreds of area motels, but I couldn’t find one vacancy. When I finally located the very last room in town, the motel had jacked its price to five times the usual rate. I paid grudgingly, then rested a few hours before heading to the meet-up. There would be no sleep the next afternoon because I’d planned to drive by my old home and stomping grounds on the base before flying home.
After guard dogs inspected our packs, the enlisted personnel escorted us onto three buses. Off we went to the rocket viewing area where I was primed to see “Mike’s rocket” perched on the launchpad. As the bus climbed a spooky mountain road, we traveled through patches of fog and it was then I remembered: Vandenberg’s nickname was Vandenfog. There was always a lot of it. But I dismissed even the possibility that fog would prevent us from seeing the launch, or worse, prevent the launch itself. There was a party atmosphere – we enjoyed high anticipation of seeing this monumental machine and were ecstatic to be documenters of this unique historic moment.
One time at VAFB, when I was a young mother, I took my children to the beach. Terry had said I should probably visit the beach at 10 a.m. that day. He couldn’t tell me when launches were to occur because they were classified top-secret. But he’d often announce “Um, you might want to go to the beach today.” I’d ask about what time he thought the fog would lift and he’d wink, “Oh, around ten.” So that day I took the kids out of school, and Mike was the happiest kid on base. He loved rocket launches because dogs would howl in unison for about ten seconds before we heard the engines roar. Pet and prairie dogs could detect sounds of ignition before our human ears did. That morning when the dogs started their chorus, it drove Mike into hysterics. He began jumping up and down, screaming, pointing toward the horizon, and there went “Daddy’s rocket” over the ocean. As it made its arc across the sky, we became transfixed, in awe. With no one else on the beach, it was our scene alone. Mike said (thoughtfully, for a six-year-old) “It’s like we own this rocket.” What he meant was, it was like we owned that sight of the rocket, which no one was sharing except a few prairie dogs. The image of it sailing over the water was ours to keep in our heads. It lasted only moments, and then it was gone, into the clouds, but our memories would last forever.
This night launch would become another memory. When he woke, I would share a photo with Mike who could not be here to witness the beginning of his battery’s venture, via this Atlas V booster, into the solar system.
Upon leaving the bus, guards warned us not to trip over the edge of the cliff, a real possibility. I was astounded to step onto what could be the surface of the Red Planet (except for the red part). The scene was ghostly: bright lights shining on white expanses of rough gravel and rocky ridges, as if we’d landed from black outer space onto a foreign landscape.
I met an elderly woman from the Armed Services of America who had come to write a story. She hobbled across the gravel, me following, to the bleacher seats which fronted the view of the launchpad, somewhere out there in the dark, to wait out the next two hours. The fog had not “crept in on little cat feet” as Carl Sandburg said in his famous poem “Fog” but had settled in like an immovable lion. We couldn’t see the pad; we couldn’t see anything. Occasionally we’d hear the test conductor’s voice over a PA system broadcasting updates from Mission Control. Despite the fog, everything seemed nominal for launch.
I wished Terry could be here with me, but he’d died years before, when Mike was 15, in an experimental airplane accident – in a plane he’d built. Mike had helped him build it in our garage with his brother, Rod. As fate would have it, Rod was in the plane the tragic day it crashed. It was beyond devastating for me and my family. But it was especially hard on Mike. “Survivor guilt” and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) were not things I’d ever thought I’d need to know about, but my younger son had them. Mike experienced devastating nightmares, depression, and drug addiction. His future, his very life, teetered in precarious jeopardy over the years, and finally, with grief therapy and the passing of time, Mike improved, although his health had been compromised. It had been a brutal thrust into young adulthood, losing his beloved father and brother.
Mike’s job became a stabilizing factor after graduation from a technical school. Besides spacecraft batteries, he’d also worked on the final Titan rocket power systems before Atlas rockets replaced them. Our rocket family had orbited full circle in the space business. No one would have been happier than Terry.
During our long wait, the writer from Armed Services of America was interviewed on Swiss TV. She said she’d been all over the world reporting for the military, but this assignment was one of the best, witnessing a major advancement in planetary exploration. Then the Swiss reporter invited me to be interviewed, too. Of course, I agreed, waving “Hello, Switzerland!” and then briefly told our story about how father and son each worked on a Mars lander, the first in 1971 and this one, 2018.
After initial excitement wore down, the fog became thicker. We stood in a line along the cliff, staring hollow-eyed into black abyss. Cameras pointed at nothing definitive. Thinning fog would occasionally tease us to reveal lights beyond, which we fervently prayed were those of the launchpad.
My son touched this spacecraft. While waiting I considered this fact. He touched the little feet of the robot that would stand on Mars, 300 million miles from Earth. It would use its battery to drill deep into Martian soil, discovering more about its origin.
If it launched this night, May 5th, InSight would land the day after Thanksgiving. Tonight’s launch was just the beginning: It would travel for six months, then safely deploy. However, we wouldn’t be able to see it touch down in real-time, because of an interplanetary data transmission delay, which lasted about sixteen minutes.
…“Propulsion, Go!“ “Fuel, Go!” “Power, Go!” “Guidance, Go!” “Centaur, Go!” said systems managers, one by one. “InSight, Go!” “All Systems are Go for launch!”
“10-9-8-7…” We counted out loud. “6-5-4…” We steadied our cameras. “…3-2-1.” We held our collective breath.
Nothing. No barking dogs. We examined the impenetrable darkness.
We groaned. Waited. Moaned.
When it came, at last – the rumble – I exhaled. The ground vibrated, louder rumbling. We scanned the sky – but no flashing lights. Just endless shadow.
“One mile down range,” said an official’s voice. A mile down range? We’d seen nothing. Everyone’s shoulders and smiles dropped simultaneously. Except for mine. I didn’t need to see it after all – Mike’s rocket was on track! From what I heard over the PA, it was a successful launch, nominal, A-OK. I beamed gratitude up to starless heavens.
Atlas V carried InSight to leave the earth. They left the earth.
The Armed Services reporter and I boarded the bus to head back to the media center. We ate breakfast and waited for a few stars of the show – several mission engineers – to arrive for interviews. I interviewed Emily who had worked InSight for a year. She was elated and said she couldn’t wait for her job to continue, checking spacecraft vitals for the next six months. Everyone in the room was elated, adrenaline soaring.
Later that morning, when everything caught up, is when I cried. I hadn’t been able, as hoped, to see the base I’d enjoyed for four years – my home in Officer Housing, the boys’ school, the BX (Base Exchange), my running path under the line of pungent eucalyptus trees, the barracks where I took my first university classes. I couldn’t see them again because civilians were not allowed base access without a work reason. I had to imagine them as they were. That past life, the young Me, seemed to exist in an alternate universe.
I’d wanted this trip to be “the way back” to the person I was, long ago. I wanted to feel her, and Terry, Rod, and Mike again, through seeing – maybe even touching – things we’d shared in our exciting lives on the rocket base. Our best years were propelled from here. Rod’s (realized) dream to become a soccer star and Terry’s dream of building/flying an experimental airplane both began at Vandenberg. Terry had been Rod’s soccer coach; he’d overseen Mike’s first electronics experiments. We’d hosted Indian Guides/Boy Scouts meetings and July 4th fireworks in our backyard. And then in a flash, our family, as we knew it, was gone – like a rocket bursting away in a hot flame of glory – disappearing forever into the clouds.
“I sure miss Dad’s hugs,” Mike once confessed. I confided how desperately and chronically I wanted to touch my own dad, to hold his hand or hug him while I was growing up. But I wasn’t allowed because he had tuberculosis, a communicable disease. I could see/hear/smell him yet never touch. Kisses were forbidden, of course, but he would send, from the TB hospital, letters and cards with hand-drawn hearts on them. I still have those treasures and I touch them. I run my fingers over his beautifully scripted words. He was gone by the time I was 13. But before he died, he and I stood in the backyard at night and watched the first American satellite, Echo I, go over our heads. He explained this bit of rocket science to me and how it got up in the sky. He said, “Learn your math, kiddo.”
Needing to touch people/things reminded me of Helen Keller who could see nothing, hear nothing, but depended on the senses of touch and smell in order to relate to the world. And yet she wrote: “The best and most beautiful things are the things that cannot be seen, nor even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
Before returning to Santa Barbara I stopped at a beach near Vandenberg. I rolled shells in my hands and breathed in sea smells and absorbed the rhythmic comfort from a steady breeze.
“It’s like we own this rocket.” It’s like we own the sight of this rocket.
I’d not seen today’s rocket. I’d not seen – “nor even touched” – Mike’s spacecraft, but Mike had done both and that was enough. I’d touched history on this trip. From reliving some of our past, I’d received the gift of hope. It had been a happy past with a momentum, a thrust, that would carry us. I left the beach knowing that Mike and I were both survivors, with All Systems Go for the future. And although the InSight landing on Mars, November 26, cannot be seen the moment it happens, we’ll know it’s there. We will feel it in our hearts.
In a box/ locks of your black hair / still shiny / pressed flat by a physics book
I’d gently cut them / bushy thick / from your freckled neck / our early geek period
Shall I blast your hair into orbit / a DNA sample for aliens / UPS by space capsule?
Space is where you lived / in that cosmic head of yours / you were all about flight
Launching rockets / I was your rocket girl / you built airplanes/ ‘til you died in one
Remember nights on the lawn / we lay dewy and cool / searching stars for the red
Amazed that we could even see the Red Planet / up to 1000 x farther than the Moon!
We planned our lives together / lightyears ahead / as if we owned space and time
Yes / I would send your locks flying / around Mars / if my rocket could escape gravity
Hear the engines / feel the thrust / scar the sky / visions can be memories
I remember your eyes / meteoric flashes / electrifying the dark / traveling 186K mi/sec
In physics nothing dies / it merely changes form / maybe you’re a quasar
Dear husband / my energy will stay here for now / on Earth / grounded in the present
I’m sending up your hair / after one last caress / Goodbye, hair / go gently into the night
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/NASA HQ PHOTO