Close Enough to Rattle Our Windows

We lived close enough to Edwards Air Force Base for the test flight sonic booms to rattle our windows. So I know what it's like to feel the shudder of the new space age being born. In an excellent article, Washington Post Guy Gugliotta has written about the king of the early rockets, the Saturn V, which lifted men to the moon and remains, "a key artifact of the space race," according to Allan A. Needell, manned spaceflight curator at the smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. "If you wanted to pick one object to describe the era, that would be it." The Post article describes the history of the 363-foot tall behemoth, and tells how the neglected "carcasses -- sun-bleached, moldy, rained-on and spattered with bird-droppings", will now be preserved by NASA.

The article reminded me of the space cowboy mentality that pervaded our family, father and his circle of space scientist and engineer friends. The wild optimism of those guys who were sure they were the geniuses of their Cold War times and that the sky was no longer their limit. The follwing scene from Rocket Lessons illustrates the mood of the day and my dad.

I sometimes miss that mood of irrational American optimism. You could well call it miltaristic belligerence. But it had a can-do component that I wonder if the U.S. has lost a little in the last 50 years - a little of the feeling that if you really wanted to, you could just about shoot yourself off to the moon, launching a little personal rocket of your own in your own back yard.


Dad was assigned to a team from his company, in collaboration with the Air Force ballistic missile division, to provide NASA with technical direction. The way Dad saw it, he was a sub-contractor to "know-nothings," as he politely called the new civilian agency heads. Dad was frazzled enough to consider looking for a new job. He even entertained entrepreneurial ideas one night during a visit from a guy Dad called with great affection "that screwball Truax."

In 1958, Bob Truax was one of rocketry's originals. He would one day become famous for inventing a rocket-propelled motorcycle that almost got Evel Knievel across the Snake River Canyon. Truax was renowned for his invention of low-cost rocket engines and innovative vehicles. He had worked with my father on a defense project for more than a decade. Now he saw in Mitch a possible partner for a new venture, one that would take them into the stratosphere of rocketry.

We did not know how famous "Uncle Bob" was. We only know him as the guy with the hyena laugh. Uncle Bob made his proposal to Dad when they were on the patio having drinks before dinner. I was trying to figure out what they were talking about. They talked about something called an Iron Curtain, but not the one in Russia, one here in America. It was also called "NASA."

"The trouble is, Mitch, the people with imagination don't have any money, and the people with the money don't have any imagination."

Dad grinned. "You can say that again. Most of them couldn't find a good trajectory if it came with diagrams and a set of written instructions – which it usually does. But I'm not sure they can read."

Truax uncorked one of his laughs. From the kitchen, my mother and Bob's wife Roz looked out to see what was going on.

"Mitch, it's all heading in one direction," Bob said.

"Yeah? What direction is that?"

Bob popped an olive into his mouth and swigged his drink with gusto. "Personal rockets. That's where it's going. You should be there when it happens."

"Oh, yeah?" Dad was tickled to be included in anything Bob was planning. "And how do I get there?" Another wild laugh echoed away into the canyon, followed by Bob's earnest, high-pitched voice. "By teaming up with me. Listen, we don't need those guys. We can go off on our own and invent the next big industry. Personal rockets. Claim your own piece of space. It's the next Westward Movement."

Dad seriously considered it, then the numbers started whizzing in his brain and failed to add up. "Yeah," he said, but the syllable lacked conviction. "I just don't see the profit in it."

"Mitch, not everything is about profit."

"To me, it is. Otherwise I can just go down to my studio and paint."

Truax continued to describe his theory of circumventing bureaucracy by putting mini-missiles in the hands of citizens. I did not understand the pressure they were under, nor that it caused a rise in Dad's volatility to the point that he wheezed and twitched like a fuel tank steaming with liquid oxygen.