discussion post on Sat, April 27, 2013 - 9:27 PM
I am an engineer. I have always been an engineer, although I didn’t know it until well into my second year at the University of California. More than that, I am an explorer, a horizon hunter, an adventurer, albeit in the overweight, out-of-shape and bespectacled carcass of a sedentary laborer. Walter Mitty with a slide rule. And that instrument, I suppose, dates me accurately enough.
I drew my first serious punishment from my parents for riding my new Schwinn to Neptune Air Park, not too near my home in New Jersey, when I was eight. I lost the bike for a year. But I did get to fly, if only in my imagination, the wrecked Beechcraft E-18 that old Ike kept in front of the operations shack. It was like the ship he had flown over the North Pole during the last vestiges of the Age of Exploration, and he was going to fix it up. He kept it for purposes of reminiscence, I now suppose. Ike has been gone a long time.
I buzzed my high school graduation in a rented Cherokee 140. That got me grounded. After high school, I flunked out of college. Couldn’t study. Didn’t know why I should. I was already almost as smart as the smartest person I knew (my father), and he was a professor. Besides, all the really good jobs: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Lord of the Rings, Emperor of the Universe, didn’t require college. So I joined the Navy. My mother’s reaction was typical of our relationship to that point. “Aggravated” is not a strong enough word. Dad said, “ Let the boy grow up his own way.”
I was stationed in San Diego. I got part of a degree in journalism. I wrote press releases. I wrote features for Navy newspapers, and for civilian newspapers when I got out. I thought I was going to win a damned Pulitzer.
I asked Patricia Catherine McCann to marry me. She said yes. I have no idea in the world why she did, but after 35 years of marriage I’m still glad.
My major at UCSD in La Jolla was “Visual Arts”, whatever that is. I thought of it as photography. My advisor looked at my collection of math courses, which were electives for me, and shook her head. “This will never last,” she predicted.
Pat and I had a child. (We eventually had two, both daughters, both stunning, both brilliant.) So I picked up the classified section of The San Diego Union and determined that supporting children required a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Besides, I had discovered that I couldn’t stand the other people in the Humanities Department. It’s hard to say exactly why. They were just wrong too often. All of my friends were in the sciences.
Gerard K. O’Neill had just published “The Colonization of Space” in Physics Today. I had all but ignored the Apollo missions to the moon because they were just sorties into a vacuum. But O’Neill foresaw that you could use materials from the moon to build self-sustaining colonies in orbit, and use them as jumping off points to press deeper and deeper into the unknown, terra incognita, my favorite place.
Job one after college landed me in the middle of space shuttle component design. While in Los Angeles, I picked up a Masters in Engineering from UCLA. My second job took me to Vandenberg Air Force Base, “The Western Spaceport”, where we were supposed to set up Space Launch Complex Six for putting Columbia and her sister ships into polar orbit. We lived in nearby Lompoc. Pat and her “Camp Fire Astronautics” group launched that city's first Space Week, celebrating the landing at Tranquility Base, and expanded its scope every year until the shuttle project closed.
We moved to Arizona, where I built aircraft engines and started writing a book about what compels us to explore other worlds. I’m still writing it.
We’ve moved four times since. Our children have grown up and launched their own enterprises far away.
Recently, Pat said, "Let's move to Tucson." We did. Drawn here by some cosmic design that I appreciate, but fail to understand, this alien landscape at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, a short jaunt from Biosphere 2, is where we think the future of space exploration lives. Let's see.
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