Well, everyone here is sick as a perrito, and the past four days have been a combination of sleepless nights, puking, feverish highs, and hot baths. Jake got his second vaccine dose yesterday, so he’s feeling a double whammy. I’ll be feeling the same way in a few short hours. Being sick made me miss my dad, who used to let me let go of the world around me and made sure I had a belly full of chorizo tacos, Gatorade, and a good show on TV.
I’ve been reading a lot lately (re: late nights). Recently, Garlic and Sapphires, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and My Brilliant Friend. Of these, Ferrante’s book stood out to me as one of the best books on female friendships I’ve seen in literature.
I’ll probably speak more to Ethan’s first day of school next week, but I hope this picture lights up your day as it did mine:
This week’s letter is a continuation of the one I wrote last week. It’ll probably be my last NASA letter, and in full disclosure, I wrote it about six years ago when I was a different person. It’s not really even a letter, but I dug it out of the archives of things that may go through a round of edits and see if it still holds. Enjoy!
July 28, 2015, three astronauts aboard the International Space Station watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, deploying from Kennedy Space Center’s Cape Canaveral. Included in this payload was a spacesuit, the Microsoft HoloLens, and millions of dollars of research technology. Two minutes after liftoff, the rocket exploded.
The cargo shipment also contained personal articles—crew member requests range from a favorite shampoo, to remember the scent of familiar hair; Laughing Cow cheese, a watch set to the time of a distant hometown, colorful banners to hang in cubbies before football season. These things matter. But something intangible also sunk to the bottom of the ocean—among the debris, always, is the NASA spirit. **
Space is hard—tweeted Astronaut Scott Kelly, moments after the failed cargo shipment.**
As a NASA employee, I know what it’s like to work hard for little payoff. It’s an extreme team sport—each civil servant at each of the ten nationwide centers has a role for the mission directorate. When we fail, we feel as though we failed the US nation, the astronauts on station, we fail ourselves. All eyes on us, and for a quiet organization that prefers lab to face time, the noise becomes unbearable. Phones ring off the hook in the newsroom, the White House demands explanations, towns arrange press conferences, engineering addresses the elephant in the room: what happened?
When the Falcon 9 exploded, I had just begun my third work tour at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. On the day of the failed cargo shipment, something deflated within me. I needed fresh air, so I filled my lungs with humidity and wandered the muggy avenues of Johnson Space Center campus. My favorite spot is by a pond covered in green film. There, you can see turtles with yellow underbellies sunbathing, wilting water lilies, and two baby deer whom we called Mary Kate and Ashley. Sometimes a baby alligator and a snake coiled like a garden
I wasn’t the only one out there. Many of us were wandering like zombies in the heat. Ties were loosened, cigarettes lit, strands of hair stick to sweaty faces, as we swatted at mosquitos batting at our eyelids. We looked up, down, everywhere but each other. A few of the scientists whose experiments were on the cargo shipment were locked in their offices. This quiet is difficult to replicate.
That night, I could hear the squeaks of my roomates’ air mattresses through the thin walls of the janky apartment we shared. Matt, a welder from LA, often built robots and set them loose in the apartment. The kitchen often smelt of cast iron, and it wasn’t from cooking. Josh, a Columbia grad, had helped design components of the Falcon 9. We ate Pop tarts the next morning by the kitchen counter. I warily eyed our apartment pet—a boa constrictor—as he ate his breakfast too. Matt was silently wiring his candy bomber, which he planned to fly over LA and drop candy over children’s playgrounds, though we had yet to determine if the candy bomber would be considered a public menace or a service to children everywhere.
I noticed the candy bomber now had wings. Josh hadn’t said anything since the day before when he got home around midnight. A few weeks ago, he had described to me over a plate of spaghetti, why he no longer believed in God. His father is a preacher. Telling him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, he told me.
We left to the office together that morning, exhausted, but invigorated to work even harder.
My first position at NASA was as a loan to SETI, which carries the memory of water, melting gelato, and catching the summer sun fade above the Pacific Ocean, a crispness in the air.
On silences: my email inbox as I waited for the federal government to process my funding to purchase supplies. An anechoic chamber at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, where you can’t hear your own voice. A dull humming in my ears, the black behind my eyelids as I drifted into short and fitful sleep, dreaming in reds and speculating how on earth I would determine the composition of soil on Mars.
In Houston, I’m known for my poker face. Many of the buildings at Johnson are abandoned. On the way to my cubicle, I pass rows and rows of vacated offices. The fear of being laid off runs parallel to the fear of the world outside—where is the money to pay these people for what they have done, the ones who poured their whole lives into the organization?
My boss once laid off 150 employees before lunch, with hundreds of years of combined experience, with lack of transferrable skills. I drown myself in my job to honor trailblazers before me—I can hear their voice in careful notes written in spidery cursive, on the phone as I whisper for help on how to operate a machine that requires a loving caress.
Note to self: when the NASA director asked an auditorium of employees if they have any questions, only raise your hand if you’ve earned it.
“What did you like best about being an astronaut?” a new hire asked during a staff meeting, which can quickly devolve into an Oscar ceremony or a period of mourning, depending on if the spotlights are red or blue on the NASA logo floating in the background.
“Being in space,” Director Ellen Ochoa said, former astronaut and current lead of Johnson Space Center. She’s also kind of like our first Hispanic lady, both as an astronaut and a Director.
Ellen frowned, gazing thoughtfully at the blushing new hire. “And you can’t beat the view.”
You have a 0.02% chance of being selected for an astronaut training class if you apply. In this training, you will discover you have or are predisposed diseases you never dreamed of having, you get zipped into body bags for hours to test for claustrophobia, abandoned in a forest to gauge your ingenuity, thrown stories deep into a pool and made to operate hardware with a 300-pound suit on your back. These brave men and women are willing to die for science, many come from military backgrounds. Many are pilots, many are men, though the landscape is changing—the 2015 graduating astronaut class was an even split of men and women, though in astronaut corps meetings I often only see men.
The signs of a rookie spacewalker: a beaming smile, which I fondly see on Tim Peake this summer, a European Space Agency astronaut whose never flown. His parents love him very much, I’ve heard. You’re lucky to get a grimace from a Cosmonaut, though that doesn’t mean the American and Russian teams don’t work well together. In fact, they are a well-oiled machine, selected in part for personalities and egos kept in check. Most don’t mind minor celebrity status in the name of international cooperation. The Cosmonauts come to the US space nodes for “chocolate-covered candies” (otherwise known as M&Ms), the Americans like the Russian toilet paper (it’s softer, they insist). We share in space what we can’t on the ground.
At Johnson, I’m a public affairs specialist, and this summer I followed Astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who docked on the ISS in late June.
“It’s like being a rotisserie chicken,” my boss said as the crew broke atmosphere. It really is hot up there. We were camped out in the newsroom waiting for an all-clear from Mission Control. “Six hours of torture. But God, look at that smile!”
Kjell gave us a thumbs up on the TV screen we were monitoring. We held our breath as the crew totem, a Robonaut plushie, floated inside the Soyuz space capsule. The crew had reached zero gravity. The danger had passed, docking would come. We high-fived. Kjell would be okay.
In space, you grow an inch, your eyes change shape, you lose your sense of taste, bacteria cultures grow in three dimensions allowing us to see its potentials. The sheer amount of sunsets and sunrises you see in a day: 16. You don’t shower, you’re tethered in your sleep, you play weird games of space poker, you’re put to bed in the early evening when the light switches are flipped off from Mission Control. The universe is your oyster.
The original Buzz—Buzz Aldrin—was the second man to walk on the moon. He was eating a bowl of minestrone soup in the cafeteria last fall when I saw him. That cafeteria isn’t very popular because the food is…disgusting. Buzz was with his young wife and children. A group of my co-workers asked him if we could take a picture with him. He shook his head no. “I don’t want people to remember me like this.” He continued to eat his soup.
What happens to them after? Many astronauts enter academia, ending their mission and career at NASA once they’re back on Earth. A few accept management positions, become trainers, vicariously live through the future generations. In all, there is a sense of resignation, as if the most amazing period of their life is in the past. ** I think of the NASA glory years as the gilded age, situated in a world that no longer exists. This was a NASA that had the support of the federal government, of the people—this was the NASA that sent men into space with a Mission Control center whose entire systemic design held a fraction of the technology of the smartphone you hold in your hand, this is the NASA that put men on the moon.
The Orion spacecraft is a multipurpose crew vehicle in development to take astronauts to Mars. It will take six months, at least—we don’t have the faintest idea how to lose over half the weight, carry the water (as we say at NASA—today’s pee is tomorrow’s coffee), propel the SLS rockets, lighten the payload, extend the crew quarters (imagine the size of a downstairs bathroom).
We have one mission, to advance human space exploration. It’s only in recent years that the government has mandated for the organization to function more like a business, to pinch dollars and cents, seek external funding and partnerships. Our piece of the federal budget pie is less than ½%.
Risk-taking invokes a justified fear. What’s taboo—mentioning Apollo, though we haven’t forgotten the employees that were laid off alongside the retired shuttle program. We phase out the shuttle insignia, try to forget the day the government shut us down, and mandated a journey to Mars. No one speaks of the Columbia or Challenger disasters above a stilted whisper—though we can’t forget the mark these heroes left on pioneering hearts, the terrible silence in Mission Control, the sound of the flight director’s sobs, who blames himself, carrying the lives of the families left behind on his shoulders.
We don’t display Columbia or Challenger crew patches in historic Mission Control alongside the others, rather, they are mounted by the door to remember they never came home, to remember the responsibility that we have not only to the country but to our friends. Those of us that don’t make it into space support those who do, we find beauty in the things around us on Earth, though we reach for a final frontier.