Space Oddity: My Weird Year with NASA

bq. _“Everything in space obeys the laws of physics. If you know these laws and obey them, space will treat you kindly. And don’t tell me man doesn’t belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go.”_ --Wernher von Braun A few years ago, I...

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Jul 8 2011, 2:22pm

"Everything in space obeys the laws of physics. If you know these laws and obey them, space will treat you kindly. And don't tell me man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go." —Wernher von Braun

A few years ago, I ventured into the bowels of NASA's marvelous machinery, where I was privileged to tread in the boot-prints of mechanic-angels, men who knew their Newton, and aided by 36,000 feet per second of escape velocity, have " . . . slipped the surly bonds of Earth . . . and touched the face of God." Moonmen. Stone cold moonmen. I was not a stone cold moonman. I was just here to save the space program.

As I rode the elevator in NASA's mobile launch structure 39A, the same elevator that took Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins up to the rocket that would carry them to the Moon, my guide pointed out a pulley system at the very top of the launch pad.

"That's the astronaut's escape mechanism," he explained. The pulley looked just like the one my dad rigged up for me in our backyard when I was a kid. The idea was that I could ride it from one oak tree to another, but I was a rotund child, so I usually ended up stranded in the middle hanging on for dear life over an imaginary pool of molten lava that it was my charge to cross.

"Hey, you fat dickhead! Just give up and drop into the volcano! It's my turn," my friend Adam would suggest.

At NASA, the astronauts were supposed to hop into a basket attached to a long wire strung from the top of the launch pad, slide away from an impending catastrophe, and land "safely" on the ground barely fifty yards away. It was an ill-advised contingency from my perspective. An astronaut who elected to bail out before launch would have maybe a half-second longer to ponder death than he or she would have by just staying put—one extra glissando of consciousness.

I imagined the blazing foam in Apollo 11's wake, and I saw the Saturn V rocket and attendant moonmen giving the finger to six billion trillion tons of Earth. I liked that idea, but at that particular moment, I felt the weight of the hold-down arms, mammoth clamps designed to pin down all seven-and-a-half-million pounds of thrust from Apollo-Saturn until the moment of lift-off. My own terrestrial slump vector approached zero. The elevator smelled like Play-Doh and darkroom stop bath. I retched. I put the blame on something I ate, but everyone could smell the twenty drinks I had with something I ate.

My colleague and another mortified VIP, who had something to do with oil, were encouraged to ride the escape pulley down, although "we don't usually let people do this." I opted to take the most important elevator in the history of humankind back to Earth. Moonmen don't know what it's like to go down the elevator. They just go up.

**

My journey "into" space began soon after I finished graduate school. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend of three years, and I was on the cusp of thirty, living with my parents and approximately $60,000 in the red from trying to pay my school debts with winnings from Internet gambling. A group of online Koreans let me win big early, then took my online barn and my very real money. Welcome home, son!

My parents, in desperation, suggested I become a millionaire wine sniffer. They read an article about a guy who was paid millions of dollars a year to travel around the world sniffing and (presumably) drinking fancy wines. Mom ran to the bathroom and emerged waving the article about "the nose" and all the money and all the wine. She began to read it out loud, but I interrupted:

"I got a job at NASA."

My parents laughed. You tell your children they can do anything when they grow up. No, they can't.

"NASA? Like as a bathroom attendant?" my father asked.

"As a writer. It's through an ad agency."

"God bless America. Well, if NASA doesn't pan out, I'm telling you—there's money," he assured me, "in that nose."

I have a big nose, which makes me sensitive. We read on about the nose guy and eventually everybody got grouchy and went to bed.

A major NASA subcontractor approached the Clark/Norton advertising agency in Houston. They wanted our agency to save the space program; to produce an internal magazine that showcased their Return to Flight (RTF) efforts after the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts burst apart over Texas. My job was to co-write and edit the magazine, which would showcase space travel's "added-value" to the world, emphasize the necessity of space exploration, and provide a monthly update on the goings on in the RTF effort that Space Shuttle employees could pretend to read. Aiming High we would call it.

My collaborator, an unhappy 50-ish weasel named Dina, and I would bomb down I-45 to the Johnson Space Center near Clear Lake, a misnamed murky body of water 25 miles south of Houston. Dina was the agency's other writer. She had short hair like a boy, bronzed leathery skin and nostrils you could see up into even when you were looking at her eye to eye. She was attractive, though, in her way. Imagine Raquel Welch hit with 50,000 volts. And, like many people who have taken themselves out of the pool, she had gone crazy and fallen in love with eight cats. She expected you to remember their names. One was called Buttcheeks. She would hurtle down the highway in her black Hummer, a vehicle that required she keep a small stool on hand so she could scramble up into the driver's seat.

"Tyler, the first time I got married, do you want to know what I thought right before the priest said his spiel?" Dina asked.

"That maybe getting married was a bad idea?" I wouldn't have been so direct, but we stopped off at her house to feed her cats and pick up a bottle of Frangelico that we shared out of a Houston Astros gimme cup along the way.

"Tyler, I swear to Christ, I thought to myself that this was a stupid idea and that I hated this fucking guy. Every bullshit cell in my body was dinging on full alert. One time I killed a burglar, too. That doesn't mean anything, except I thought it was him, Brian, my ex-husband coming in the door, but instead it was a fucking burglar. I even told that to the cops, who didn't think it was funny or true, thank God. Are you married?"

"No."

"Good. We'll get along fine. What's a drink you can make with Frangelico?"

"Pancakes," I said, remembering a drink somebody gave me once that tasted just like pancakes. "Frangelico, Grand Marnier, sugar and lemons. It tastes exactly like pancakes."

"Prove it," she said, so I did.

At Johnson Space Center, we saw first-hand how stupid we were and how most astronauts drove Corvettes. We carried Dictaphones, and we interviewed every kind of administrator, technician, astronaut and engineer. We asked probing questions:

"Now, what's going on with the External Tank modifications?"

"Well, do you mean the new requirements for the intertank flange bolting or the enhanced close-out procedure and liquid hydrogen feedline bellows?" an earnest rocket scientist would reply.

"The intertank fla…the intertank thing, is, I was…feedline bellows, did you say?"

"Groan," the scientist's face would say, at which point I'd nod, write down a few lines of gibberish and some numbers, nod sagely, shake his or her hand and trundle downstairs to the Hummer to sip from a plastic bottle of vodka. This was a steady routine. I was incorrigibly lost.

Dina, also lost, developed a crush on a NASA flight director and did her best to ruin his marriage by luring him to all-day interviews at the Hunan Buffet, which she hoped would turn into all-day interviews at the adjacent Embassy Suites. That never worked for her, and my routine wasn't much better. I spent a lot of time with a can of Sprite and my plastic bottle of vodka under a large elm tree behind a drab, Soviet-style cement block building filled with geniuses, watching boats bob on the lake, red-tailed hawks chase after Inca doves, and once even encountered a snarling alligator, which spooked me so much I ran in zigzags toward the parking lot. I was drunk, but they tell you to run in zigzags when being chased by an alligator—the gators are fast on a line but have no turning radius—so all the more reason to stay drunk all the time.

I'd finish my half-pint, my pint or my stash of airline bottles and go back up for another "interview."

"Now, what's going on with the External Tank modifications," I'd ask.

"Well, do you mean the new requirements for the intertank flange bolting or the enhanced close-out procedure and liquid hydrogen feedline bellows?" another rocket scientist would ask.

"Do all astronauts drive Corvettes?"

"Tyler, is it? Tyler, do you even know what the fuck you're doing here?"

"No, not really."

"Jesus, man. You look like I need a drink," admitted the rocket scientist.

I walked away ashamed, hot cooties writhing in my gut, back to the Hummer.

**

It's easy to catch space fever, however. Working at NASA, I got to know the men and women who still, truly, don't believe in America. They believe beyond America. Yes, some people are passionate about space because they are worried "the Chinks" or "the Pinks" will get there first and set up shop, but those people don't have badges. You can usually find those folks, wild with enthusiasm and hopped up on amphetamines, sitting on beer-coolers near Johnson or Kennedy Space Center, selling little American flags, NASA mission pins and pot.

I've always maintained that hanging around smart people is the key to getting a good education, and inside these boring toaster-shaped buildings were some of the most exciting minds I will ever encounter. Ask them why bad things happen to good people and they'll get out a pencil and a pad and start the human arithmetic. They'll try anything. NASA is great, because there they don't care who you are, only that you are creative and the best in the world at doing something extraordinarily complicated. These people are also nothing if not directed, so when country & western star Conway Twitty single-handedly stalled Russia-US space relations for two decades, they were understandably frustrated.

"What?" I asked Beaux, a grizzled subsytems manager.

"It's true. Ford and Brezhnev wanted some public gift exchange where the Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts met up mid-orbit and shook hands and all that PR shit. It was summer 1975, and [astronaut] Tom Stafford got it in his head he wanted to present some fucking country music with a Soviet vibe to the Russians on the Soyuz. So what does he do? He sure as shit calls up Conway Twitty, asks him to record "Hello Darlin'" in Russian for the cosmonauts, and Twitty did it."

"That's fantastic," I said.

"No, it really wasn't," said Beaux.

"Why's that?"

"Well after that, the Russians wouldn't have anything to do with us—not until '95 when STS-63 met up with Mir."

"Ok, but why is that?"

"Have you ever heard, the song 'Privet Radost'? It's in the Twitty box set."

"No."

"Well, you want a rickety détente, you call Conway Twitty and have him sing to you in Russian. If you want peace, if you really want to raise an Iron Curtain, you play Charlie Pride."

I saw his point.

Beaux then explained the intricacies of the Hubble telescope's optics and how it was bullshit that they started a fire using Piggy's glasses in Lord of the Flies.

"The book is meaningless. Piggy is near-sighted, so he needs light-diverging lenses, and to start a fire, you need to concentrate your sunlight, OK. The whole structure falls to pieces, the metaphor sags and we're left with a bunch of pale British boys, running around like dumb assholes." This kind of frenetic free-association was common—NASA people will connect any two dots, geography be damned.

For me, NASA was a perpetual whirlwind of brilliant, intrepid neurons. I wanted to be of these people, but I knew that could never happen, so I was satisfied just to be among them. They didn't give a damn about politics; they wanted to play with their toys, solve puzzles, feel passion and go their own special kind of crazy. The ones I met did that, and they did it in style, and some did it rowdy. I had many late nights with engineers and systems managers and astronauts and every thoroughbred spacehorse around. Early one morning, sloshed on Lone Star and with the refrain of "Honkey Tonk Woman" ringing in my ears, we staggered out of a squalid bar weeping as members of the flight ops team recalled the sounds of post-Challenger and post-Columbia silence.

Facts:

  • A Russian cosmonaut, shortly after the overtly sexual docking procedure, once yelled, "Help! I'm being raped!"
  • There is a javelin left on the moon, along with a tie tack, somewhere in the Descartes Highlands
  • Space smells like shit.

I also learned about the intricacies of solid rocket boosters, the big, bulging miracle of thermodynamics, the external tank, the ongoing fight against gravity, the hot stinking teeth of solar winds, guidance systems, purge subsystems and other space arcana. I got to know the rocket and the ship and the people and the culture, and it inspired me. It's not often I feel proud to be an Earthling—we're still so shitty sometimes—but I remembered an image of the tender Moon plaque, its two sentences strung together so outrageously badly, but it's meaning so transcendent and beautiful:

HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.

However, I had a distinct desire to slip those "surly bonds" myself. This is not meant to sound self-destructive or overly dramatic, though I realize that my next decision could be interpreted as a kind of "suicide by spaceship" scenario. My life was clearly not going well, so one hot Saturday morning, when I woke up wearing panties behind my parent's garage, it hit me and brought me down to the Earth like a gnat snapped out of the sky by some amphibian tongue: I would become an astronaut.

Launch pad. I am in a spacesuit, looking cool.

"You can't smoke in here, Commander Smith."

"I'm the Commander for a reason, rookie," I say, extinguishing a Camel on my subordinate's helmet shield, elbowing him in the ribs and buckling up for safety. Countdown. Liftoff. It's slow, then fast. Next thing I know, the solid rocket boosters jettison and I'm pulling two Gs, my pancreas has conquered new land around my ankles and I'm watching Earth take shape, or lose it. We're still pinned to our seats. I weigh 525 pounds now, pulling three Gs, the ghosts in the machine are no longer the cacophonous medley they were on the pad, and if I could move my arms I'd give Earth the finger myself. My vision tunnels, things go white and the aperture of consciousness struggles to keep ajar. Then, finally: Engine cutoff and zero-G! We all take a breath and it's quiet and I see my cigarettes floating around the console. It's time to read some coordinates to Mission Control:

"Roger, Houston. The view up here is spectacular, as promised. OK, I'm going to read off some information for y'all."

"Roger, Discovery. You guys are looking good. Really smooth, except for that small twitch clearing the tower. Ready for those numbers."

"OK. Houston, here goes:

  • 2 flame-broiled beef patties
  • 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 Fries
  • 1 Diet Coke

"That's a double Whopper combo, Commander Smith. How about your drift rate…some roll data…over?"

"Negative, Houston. I want that to go."

**

Back then, it was relatively easy to apply for the civilian astronaut corps (today one can do it online), although it took me another month or so before I actually sent off for my application from NASA. But I tempered my substance abuse and my night crawling. I even began to swim laps again. By this time Dina and I had wrapped up our "interviews" and were attempting to write the epic tome: a full-color NASA tribute "book" from an ad agency that wouldn't recognize overstatement if it shat on its face.

"Make it shine, you motherfuckers! Give me the goose-nuts. Give me the butterflies. Give me the cock-sucking Moon, dudes! I want graphics that make me want to jack off into space; I want words that rip and sear and fly around like crazy fucking molecules on Mercury! This is The Right Stuff! This is the money shot, you bitch fly-ass-gangsters!" That's Clark Norton, Owner/President of the Clark/Norton Advertising and Branding firm, who could always be counted on to teeter, then fall, over the leading-edge of sanity.

We finished the book. Aiming High was a huge success, and the NASA brass was rumored to want us there at Kennedy Space Center, wanted the whole agency to watch the upcoming launch of Shuttle Discovery from the VIP area. My civilian astronaut application was in the mail, and I was clean and sober and swimming and running and still living at home like a loser but working my way out. Dina never had any luck with "her" flight director, but she seemed to come out of her funk, too. She was thinking about getting married and divorced again.

"Tyler, it's a fact of life. You have to prepare for divorce first, and if you think you can handle it, you go ahead and get married. If I never say anything else to you again, remember I said that to you. Also, marry a rich person if you can stand it—everybody says it's bullshit, but money will, in fact, solve most of your problems. I've never been happier, though!" she snarled.

Eventually, the news came down that only Clark Norton and the senior account executives that worked on the Shuttle project would be invited to watch Discovery launch at Kennedy Space Center. We were, of course, encouraged by Mr. Norton to try and "come down and watch this baby pop and ghost ride the whip!" He said he would even buy the drinks (he knew Dina and I had gone cold-turkey, and we were usually "the drinks").

This disinvitation struck a devastating blow, as we'd worked passionately on our project to save the space program. That sounds like a howling exaggeration—and it is—but at the time we had to believe it, in the same way a child believes his or her plate of milk and cookies have given Santa fuel for the rest of his journey. As a consolation prize, it was eventually agreed that our client would foot the bill to fly us out to Kennedy Space Center for the landing. Perhaps they remembered my performance in the elevator earlier in the year. You can't be too careful during launch: that is where disaster struck Challenger in 1986.

With a descent disaster, you don't get the same theatrics. When Challenger blew, the sky was a canvas, intricate curlicues of white smoke and pearled vapor forming ancient symbols in the clear blue sky. On descent, disaster has less artistry. The Shuttle rips up, noiselessly, metal and fire spitting through the atmosphere. Then debris rains and the top brass sends out a message NASA-wide that is grotesque in its terseness: "Lock the doors." Nobody leaves until they out what went wrong. This is called the data impound.

"Don't lock that door," Dina slurred. Dina and I, along with a group of swamp things that followed us from a karaoke bar, climbed the stairwell of a building near the Kennedy Space Center. It was pre-dawn. We crossed a steel grating to the roof. Two beacon lights pointing south flooded one end of the Shuttle runway, which meant Discovery would return from the north. Two sonic booms will ooze out of the night, and there will be Discovery, her nose still throbbing with an angry orange glow from the heat of re-entry. She will emit a low-frequency groan as she carves the air, pulling up to sub-sonic. Wheels will touch down at 200 knots, the brake chutes will deploy, and the sniff-check crew will run out to scrutinize her steaming underbelly. That is what should happen. But, there is nothing in the sky. Dina and I have fallen off the wagon, we've gone hot turkey. We wait.

Dina's cell phone rings.

"Uh-hic. Uh-huh. Well Clark, we're in Florida, not California," Dina says, then mouths the words, "We are in Florida, right?" to the swamp thing with the cocaine. His head bobbles suggesting a "yes." Something is awry. Dina and I, full of booze and blow and horror stagger around the roof in our grief. Discovery has crashed and burned up during re-entry. People I have met, people who I care about are now atmospheric sprinkles. I can't think about it, all the gory details—I hope it was fast.

"I guess they made it," Dina finally said, hanging up the phone.

"To heaven? "I ask, one of the most embarrassing questions of my life.

"No, to California. To Edwards."

It was, apparently, a beautiful landing, which had in fact taken place thousands of miles away, at Edwards Air Force base in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Discovery was diverted at the last minute, for some reason—maybe weather.

The mission was a total success, but we came home to Houston in tatters, wiped out and ashamed. I abandoned my astronaut training and returned to my experiments in depraved organic chemistry, full-on. Dina, too. As for Discovery, they found some damage to the carbon-tiles, but the men and women at NASA, using—literally—a million pieces of garbage glued together by the lowest bidder, still found a way. During my more lucid moments, I did still imagine myself high up in orbit, doing some experiment that sounded good at the time, something like "The effects of smoking cigarettes in space."

**

I recently received the letter from NASA in response to my civilian astronaut application sent half a decade ago. My application has been under consideration for years, but now I have their answer: I won't be going into space.

"Dear Mr. Smith," it reads, "we thank you for your interest in the . . ." usual devastation you read in a rejection letter. No real explanation. Not that I really needed one. I'm not astronaut material, and that's not just my eye's cycloplegic refractive error bending lazily beyond the -4.00 diopter max in any meridian. It's a 21st century rejection letter, though, long on grace and mercifully short. At least I had a chance. Did you know that if you're 5.16 feet tall, you can be an astronaut; 5.15 feet tall and it's tough shit? 6.25 feet you're in; 6.26 you're out. The coldness of space often runs to the congenital.

I opened the cavernous drawer to my old farm table, where I've shoved all my "papers," over the years. There was a copy of Aiming High, stained an almost preposterous winepurple. I looked at all my "material" from the NASA days, and along with abstruse design specs and drunken doodles I made of space monsters eating Clark Norton, I am drawn to a slip of paper that reads:

Official Shuttle Launch Beans and Cornbread:

6 pounds dried Great Northern beans 10-lb smoked ham diced into walnut-sized chunks 1 ham bone 2-3 bunches of celery, chopped 3 lbs onion, chopped 2 oz. lemon pepper 1 oz. liquid smoke

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place ingredients in 18-quart cooker and fill to one-inch of the top with water. Bring to slow boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for 5-6 hours. For cornbread, follow instructions on a box of Martha White self-rising corn muffin mix.

I remember how Dina and I decided to have a watch party for the Discovery launch after we learned we wouldn't be going to Florida. We made the beans and cornbread, but the sloppy mess sat untouched as we watched the launch on NASA TV, drinking pancakes.

"Tyler, you can't really think you're going to make the astronaut corps, can you?" she asked scornfully. Discovery cleared the tower.

"Dina, I've never felt so really strongly about anything in my entire life."

The Space Shuttle's last mission is scheduled to launch today. I won't be on it. I don't want to be on it. I'm not good enough with the instruments, and physics is not one of my strong suits. I just don't understand it, space and force and Newton and Einstein. I thought my ignorance might be an attribute, propelling me into low-Earth orbit, but that was not the case. There are people who should stay on the ground, pull it together and take care of things down here. We will probably never know the effects of smoking cigarettes in space, and I apologize for that.

I am not astronaut material. It's a hard murder out there where no one can hear you scream. I have fractured the laws of physics and wandered aimlessly around the cosmic vault. I have escaped, leaned over the edge of the Earth and shrieked into a deaf firmament. Not the moonmen. Not the astronauts. They play their conquest cool. But, for the minds inside and behind the rocketry, space is not a conquest. You don't go up there in a besotted, rebel-yell panic, barking orders into the void. You go up there carefully, quietly, say the engineers, the astronauts, the flight directors and the floor cleaners.

"It's not a damned 747. You can't fuck in the bathroom," an astronaut once warned. You "don't embarrass yourself and you do the legwork. Then space will respect you. Nobody wants to wait for that, though. Everybody wants a payoff nownownow. We can't tell space what the hell to do—or what to give us. Space can't hear us, but when we shut up and listen to it, we always see it has something to say." I'm listening.

Tyler Stoddard Smith has written for Esquire, UTNE Reader, The Texas Observer, and the Science Creative Quarterly, among others. He has a website.