Saturday, November 13, 2004

Ten, Nine, Eight ...


WELCOME TO THE LAUNCH PAD.


DAY ONE. When the rocket is moved on the mobile transporter from its vertical hangar to the launch pad, the second so-called Wet Dress Rehearsal begins – the countdown timeline. Super-cold liquid oxygen will be loaded into the first and second stages, and the liquid hydrogen propellant will be loaded for the rocket's inaugural flight. Everything was nearly ready when the problem happened. A valve setting had been changed following the first dress rehearsal, and that caused a rise in pressure that tripped up the monitoring software and forced a hold.

Here in the Control Room, everything stopped. We were trying to figure out how to get this bird off the ground – inaugurate the first Blog about the forthcoming (well, sooner or later) book ROCKET LESSONS, a memoir of growing up a rocket kid in the fifties – when we realized we had not actually finished the flight plan.

DING-DING-DING! Malarkey alert. What is the purpose of this Blog, anyway?

Okay, let's stand down from dress rehearsal and begin in a simpler way, talking about a simpler time. America's kids in the 1950s and 1960s were launched much in the same way my father launched the first Atlas and Nike missiles: by the seat of our parents' pants, with little more than a slide rule and a copy of Dr. Spock. That's DR. SPOCK, not Mr. Spock, for you Gen-Xers and other children.

W
hy are many of us so nostalgic about a time when technology consisted of a black-and-white television and a dishwasher that rolled out from beside the sink and was hooked up with hoses to the faucet, to rattle its load of dishes so loud you had to leave the house to have a conversation?

Why are many of us, in short, writing about our childhoods in similar suburbs, places filled with post-War optimism and brand new Chevies? I think of it as the Great Boomer Blog, the migration across decades of rapid change that is the span of our adult lives. What happened back there? How did we get here?

The Boomer generation began life with a record number of questions, and it looks as though we may end the same way. I believe it's the fault of the Space Age, which instilled in ours and succeeding generations just a little too much confidence in our gadgets and a scientific future, as opposed to remaining more comfortable, as previous generations had done, with a few of life's mysteries. We had too much of a sense of inbuilt command from being raised as the first kids to watch humans ride rocket ships. Dad made sure to instill in us a high sense of this kind of entitlement. To quote from ROCKET LESSONS (which will be a regular feature of this blog):

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My father had no interest in religion. He did not believe a Creator lived up there beyond the blue and might be controlling things Dad should be controlling. Dad was one of the brash young men in the 1950s who fired missiles into the ozone layer, a slide-rule god making thunder over the Mojave Desert. They had just split the sound barrier. No one yet knew how to reach outer space – no one had even been to the stratosphere. Where Dad worked, scientists and engineers were working on a way to give a rocket a big enough kick on the apogee to get a big payload into orbit. Anyone could try an idea, if he had a photo badge, a crew cut and working knowledge of calculus. My father had them all.

His first assignment at Space Technology Laboratories was to work on the development of the Atlas, America's bid to lift top-secret payloads into orbit and intimidate the Reds. I did not know why we did not like red people, but I heard we also did not like the blacks and browns. Dad went away every few months for launches that often turned out disasters. One rocket after another fizzled, exploded, or did both, some toppling over on the blockhouse. He would leave with a suitcase and a jaunty nod and return a week later in the same gray suit, now rumpled. His gray tie was loosened and the first button of his shirt was open. His black glasses slid down his nose as he sank into the couch.

About a year after our San Felipe trip, Dad was on his fourth launch and first prescription for tranquilizers. Mom always made it an occasion when Dad came home from a trip. She gathered us in the living room and tried to restrain us from jumping on the couch next to him, a greeting rarely with good result. She served the first of his martinis and Dad, who could not talk about the details of his project, still found creative ways to complain.

"Bitch of a trip! I was surrounded by incompetents." He pushed his glasses back up; they slid down again on his perpetually sweat-beaded face. His large, green eyes looked watery and bloodshot, as though something in the air irritated him. Something was always irritating him. His nerves were so frayed he carped at anything or anyone: child, cat, chair, newspaper.

"Watch where you're going!" he said to the lamp, when he switched it on and it tipped over. "What's the matter with you?"

Mom reacted as if he had the measles. She offered nibbles and drew the curtains. She admonished us to cocoon him in tiptoe silence. He sat slack, unknotted tie ends splayed on his shirt. Even his crew cut seemed wilted. Holding the martini, he wove expletives into stories with no beginning or end, much of which we could not understand.

"You know what Dolph says to me? He says, 'Mitch, you got six inches lift-off on that last Atlas?' 'Yeah,' I says, 'before it exploded, we did.' Then you know what he says?"

What was an Atlas? Who was Dolph? We did not know, but we pretended. "What?"

"He says, 'You didn't get much altitude.' 'At least it got off the stand.' Jeez, that guy bitches me off."

Then Dad remembered how much he could not say. He drank for awhile without speaking, head twitching in that over-the-shoulder jerk we had come to identify as "Don't go near Dad." Even though it was not messed, my mother smoothed her wavy brown hair as she stood in the kitchen, looking over the pass-through bar into the living room. She smoothed her hair again. Her blue eyes blinked rapidly, as though smoothing and blinking would clear the picture and restore Dad to civility.

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If you're just interested in rockets, here's a site you should check out: http://spaceflightnow.com. And if you're interested in rocket history, NASA has some good stuff at: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/TRC/Rockets/history_of_rockets.html

When were you first aware that Americans were entitled to control space and everything downward from there? Do you have the secret urge to memoir? Stay tuned for more on these and other themes. Write your own blog on related topics and let me know so I can link to your blog. Let's network, all you backward-looking Boomer bloggers. I know you're out there, reading. And probably writing.

Write to me about all this and more. Rockets Kids away!

Rachel