Communion Of Dreams


Admiration.

Yesterday I got a note from someone who I had just met and spent some time with recently. Following that experience, they had gotten and read Communion of Dreams, and they wrote to tell me this:

I’ve finished Communion of Dreams. Sir, had I read it before I met you I feel certain that I’d have behaved differently in your presence.

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I remember July 20, 1969. As I’ve noted before:

I was at a Boy Scout camp outside of St. Louis when it happened. That night, we all sat around a big firepit, and tried to watch a small black and white portable television with bad reception as Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) E. Aldrin, Jr. made the first human steps onto the Lunar surface and spoke these words (links to audio file on Wikipedia):

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And the world was changed forever.

* * * * * * *

Death wins. We all know this. They knew it during the early years of our space program, and there were even contingency plans in the event of the death of the crew on the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong himself thought there was only about a 90% chance of his returning from that mission, as well as only a 50/50 chance that they would successfully land on the Moon (which he always considered the most important aspect of the mission).

But it is a risk which is worth taking.

* * * * * * *

Yesterday I got a note from someone who I had just met and spent some time with recently. Following that experience, they had gotten and read Communion of Dreams, and they wrote to tell me this:

I’ve finished Communion of Dreams. Sir, had I read it before I met you I feel certain that I’d have behaved differently in your presence.

Yesterday, after finding out about Neil Armstrong’s death, I spent the rest of the day thinking about the man, reading about him.

Probably the most telling thing is how he lived his life after retiring from NASA. As has been often cited (even by me – and again I recommend the very rare interview he gave last year ), the man was remarkably self-effacing. He didn’t take credit for being the first man to set foot on the Moon. He didn’t exploit the fame which had come to him unwanted. He could have easily cashed-in on his status, reaping riches for endorsements, becoming a permanent celebrity.

Instead, he joined a small university program as a professor of Aerospace Engineering.

Endorsements (of a very limited sort) and serving on the Board of Directors for several large corporations came later. But he still kept a very low profile, trying to live his life as much like a ‘normal’ person as he could.

Can you imagine how difficult that must have been? In a world where celebrity distorts everything — where even my modest accomplishment with one self-published novel would prompt someone to react differently to me — Neil Armstrong managed to live and die without it completely warping who he was.

I honor his place in history as the first man to step foot on the Moon. But I admire him much more for who he really was. That depth of character is what made him a hero.

Godspeed, commander.

Jim Downey

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Death wins.

This morning, when I went to check on her after hearing some stirring, my mother-in-law looked at me and asked if I knew where her toothbrush was.

“Yes. I know where it is. When you get up, we’ll be sure to use it.”

This simple reassurance allowed her to get back to sleep, and when we got her up at her usual time about 45 minutes later, she had completely forgotten the whole thing. See, she is well into the arc of Alzheimer’s, and has slipped to the point where she doesn’t really know where she is or who is around her most of the time. But little things like knowing that she has her own toothbrush, and she can use it, seem to make her happy, give her a measure of security. I don’t try to understand it. I am too exhausted for that. I just try to roll with it.

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Last night a friend sent me the first news reports of the explosion at Scaled Composites, indicating that two people had died and others were injured, evidently during a test of one of their rocket engines. After reading the brief news item, I replied:

Well, shit.

But as everyone involved said during the Centennial – this is going to happen. And while we have to work to take precautions, we can’t allow it to stop the future.

My friend responded to this with:

Yes. If people say we should stop, I have just two words for them:

Apollo One.

My parents knew the astronauts. And if we’d let that fire stop the space program, well……..

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I met Brian Binnie at the Heinlein Centennial. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s OK. Brian was the pilot of SpaceShipOne for the two flights which won the Ansari X Prize. He works for Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. During his inspiring presentations and discussions at the Centennial, he conveyed a simple, honest love for what he did. He made no pretense that he was a brilliant engineer or scientist (though he holds a couple of advanced degrees), and poked fun at his own public speaking skills. He came across as a regular guy, highly skilled in flying test vehicles, and more than a little amazed to have been involved in making history. I like regular guys, people who are smart and extraordinary but don’t take that too seriously.

I hope Brian wasn’t one of the people hurt in the explosion. But even if he was, I bet that his attitude won’t change, and he’ll still be convinced that private spaceflight is worth the risk. On one of his test flights ofSpaceShipOne , the ship was badly damaged and he could have easily been killed. Obviously, that didn’t stop him then. I’m sure Brian, and all the others at Scaled Composites, will be going over the data from the test to see what happened, and how to avoid it in the future.

7/28/07 Update:  Scaled Composites named those killed in the blast:  Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi.  No word on the injured.
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Panel Finds Astronauts Flew While Intoxicated

Jul 26, 2007

A panel reviewing astronaut health issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.The panel, also reported “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour “bottle to throttle” rule applied to NASA flight crew members.

You know, if you were going to strap me as cargo to the top of a chemical rocket with a 1-in-50 chance of catastrophic failure, I might well be still a little drunk, too. Oh, not if I was going to be responsible for flying the damned thing. But if I was just along for the ride? Yeah, I can see getting drunk before hand.

But that’s no way to run a space program.

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One day last week a steam pipe ruptured in New York City, killing one person and injuring many others. Each day in the US over 100 people are killed in vehicle accidents, and about half that number are murdered.

I was orphaned in early adolescence, one parent murdered and then the other dieing about 18 months later in a car accident. I came to understand death much earlier than most people in our country do. I’ve had a few close calls myself, all of them stupid and unexpected things that had my luck gone just a little differently, I would have died. Now, at middle age, I’ve got the typical health risks for a man which could mean an early and unexpected death.

But I don’t worry about that. Death wins. Every time. None of us gets out of here alive. We are all going to die, sooner or later. The only real thing that matters is that we live life as completely as possible, loving, creating, building the future. Brian Binnie understands that, and I’d bet that the others at Scaled Composites do too. I like to think that my parents understood that. My mother-in-law, who may not understand this on an intellectual level, still experiences life, still worries about her place in the world, still wants to make sure that she can brush her teeth.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)