Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rocket Science

If someone had asked me in elementary school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered: “an archeologist.” I don’t exactly when I decided this, but sometime around age 7 or 8 I developed an interest in anything ancient and especially anything that was or could be discovered by digging around in the right place. This interest began with the pyramids and all the wonders contained therein. It continued to be stoked by my discovery that our world contained full Roman cities preserved under volcanic ash, a buried Chinese tomb containing a complete army of life-sized terra cotta warriors, and ancient Mayan temples hidden under the jungle growth of the Yucatan peninsula. For a brief period my family purchased a subscription to National Geographic Magazine, and I remember flipping eagerly through the pages in search of articles about the next recently discovered ziggurat foundation or the next Viking ship found sunken in the mud near the mouth of a German river. I also remember being confused whenever I came across one of the magazine’s articles on small towns in the Great Plains or stories on Hindu dancers in Bali. These were of no interest to me. I wanted to see jeweled daggers, large earthen walls, and hieroglyphics carved into stone.

As I moved into middle school and high school, the thread to which this interest in archeology was tied quietly slipped through my fingers. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps other, better opportunities came along. Perhaps the job ‘archeologist’ did not show up on the career matching sheet used by my high school’s guidance counselors. Perhaps I merely suffered from a lack of imagination about what was possible. I was still intrigued by things ancient and buried, as evidenced by the five years I spent learning Latin, but I filed this interest under the tab of personal interest, not professional aspiration. The idea of pursuing archeology as a career had vanished from my consciousness without really putting up a fight.

I feel like this kind of thing happens to many people. As kids we wanted to be firefighters, astronauts, pilots, teachers, mechanics or chefs. Then over time these fancies drifted away to be replaced through the forces of practicality, necessity, inertia, distraction, or opportunity by careers like accountant, business manager, engineer, and chemist. It’s not like we gave up on some firmly established dream. It’s just that our ideas about what a good career would be and what is really possible for us within the range of options out there changed, subjected as they were to influence by a variety of powerful forces that felt subtly beyond our control.

While thinking about this in relation to the people I know, I could only come up with two people who had a stated career interest at an early age and went on to pursue that interest as they grew into adulthood. One wanted to become a doctor. The other wanted to be a fighter pilot. Both had clearly established visions of themselves in these careers and, more importantly, a well-defined Ur-moment, a point in their memory where they could say “that was when I knew I wanted to do this.” My doctor friend points back to a childhood visit with a pediatric allergist who was able to substantially improve my friend’s life by getting under control the wide array of debilitating allergic reactions from which he suffered. My pilot friend got hooked on the idea of flying fighter jets after watching the movie Top Gun.

This second friend and his slightly ridiculous, yet undeniably powerful Ur-moment came to mind this weekend because Pip and I experienced something together that, were he a touch older, had the potential to capture his imagination in a similar fashion.

As is our family’s custom, we spent the Thanksgiving holiday at Ava’s parents’ house. Her parents live in northeast Ohio where the weather during late November is almost unfailingly miserable. Snow is common. Cold is just about guaranteed. This year we were treated to a combination of mid-thirties temps, strong winds, and a dash of bone-chilling rain that kept us cooped up inside for all of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. While Ava and I eventually went a bit stir-crazy, Pip and Polly handled this confinement quite well. With all the different people and unfamiliar things to play with, they mostly avoided that nagging boredom that drives children to climb on tables or swing electrical cables around over their heads.

Ava’s parents also do a good job of engaging the kids in various ways like letting them help with cooking, building play houses and caves out of pillows, blankets, tables, and chairs, and having a variety of books on hand that the kids have never read before. One of the books they had put out this year contained a story in which the main character, Alex, uses about twenty different forms of transportation to get from his house to the place where he works. The book was designed to be overflowing with things to look at, and all the cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, helicopters, hot air balloons, cruise ships, ferry boats, and submarines commanded Pip’s attention for multiple hours.

On the next to last page of the book, we learn that Alex is an astronaut and see that preparations are being made to launch his space shuttle. When Pip and I were reading this book together for the sixth or seventh time on Saturday afternoon, Pip started asking questions about those preparations. In particularly he asked why the workers had to take cover just before the shuttle lifted off. I tried to explain about rockets and all the fire and smoke created when they are launched, but I could see that he was having difficulty imagining what I was talking about.

Then I remembered YouTube.

I’ve used YouTube a couple of times over the last several months to show Pip and Polly video clips of things that I can’t describe to their satisfaction. We’ve watched hang gliders riding thermals along a California cliff and giant airport fire trucks putting out fires on airplanes. As the videos play, I usually provide some commentary, pointing out things about which I was trying to tell them or talking about how something works. As they don’t watch television regularly, the opportunity to see any video is a special occasion, and in these moments they tend to be willing listeners to anything I have to say.

On this evening, Ava’s dad was working on his computer in the opposite corner of the room. He happily plopped Pip on his knee and together the three of us flipped through the YouTube archives in search of a shuttle launch to watch. There were plenty of clips to choose from. We ended up watching one of Discovery and another of Atlantis, all the while talking about the forces at work and the immense energy needed to get one of those ships off the ground and into space.

Then we found some footage of a Saturn V rocket. This was the multi-stage launch vehicle used for all of the manned moon shots made by the United States space program. The particular footage we found was for the launch of the first successful moon shot, Apollo 11. The footage was taken using a high-speed camera that was mounted on the launch platform and whoever had posted the video had slowed everything down to about a quarter of real time speed. In the background, they had also added a soundtrack using a violin and some synthesizers whose timbre rose and fell dramatically in accordance with the action taking place on the screen.

And that action was mesmerizing. It began with the ignition of the engines. The camera frame was focused tightly on the exhaust cones and the anchors used to hold the rocket steady until all the engines were ignited and their upward thrust was properly balanced. Sparklers were fired and a massive flame leapt downward from each of the cones. Then, the anchors dropped away and the whole massive cylinder started moving upward through the screen. Passing through a halo of vapors created during the ignition process, the white rocket rose gradually up the screen, eventually giving way to a blotchy plume so intense the screen became pixilated, the computer roughing in boxes of flat red and yellow when it could not fully process the dynamics of the colors present. This plume was followed by a moment of blackness as the smoke from the flames engulfed the camera. At this point, the footage moved to another camera which tracked the rocket as it shot higher and higher into the clear blue firmament, flames spewing forth in such a way that the whole thing resembled a giant squid squirting upward from the depths of the ocean.

The three of us watched all of this in silence. We stared at the screen transfixed as the second camera struggled to keep the burning rocket within view. It slid up and bounced down and rattled back and forth for a couple of minutes, sometimes managing to show only a blackened tip or a fiery tale for seconds at a time.

The whole time I was hoping that we might get a glimpse of the second stage ignition before the rocket passed out of visible range. Near the end of the eight minute clip, a second ball of fire appeared about a third of the way up the rocket. This ball dripped orange flames down along the shaft below until a steady flow was established between it and the similarly sized ball of fire at the tail of the rocket. This blazing barbell hung around on the screen for a few seconds before moving off the screen for good, seemingly moving too fast for the camera to catch up.

The footage concluded with a second look at the initial moments of the launch from a camera perched higher up on the launch tower. This time after the rocket passed through its vaporous ring and the footage continued on through the swatches of white, red, and black, no second camera picked up the lost feed. The blackness of the smoke became the blackness of a screen gone dead.

The intensity of this footage seemed to sap all the energy from Pip. Once the clip concluded, he softly proclaimed that he was done looking at movies for now and was ready for dinner. He slid down from his grandfather’s lap in a slight daze and took a couple of shuffling steps. It was as if he was not totally sure his legs would carry him. At the same time I was coming to realize how profoundly thrilling I had found that video and how, in this random moment, I had instantly become incredibly curious about how it all worked. How, I wondered, does one create that much force and how does one actually go about harnessing it to propel an object into space?

It struck me that at some level Pip was probably wondering about such things as well. He certainly could sense the visceral excitement this video generated for both his father and grandfather. Perhaps channeling that excitement to a certain extent, he had focused steadily on the screen for the full extent of the video. As he made his way towards the dinner table, I suddenly had a vision of him in thirty years talking about how this was the moment when he realized he wanted to be a rocket scientist.

Do I actually think this will happen? No. In the four days since watching that video Pip has not mentioned it once. And, given that he is not yet even four years old, I imagine that he is too young to project himself into the future in quite that way. But that age is coming and watching that video was a reminder of how simple and unpredictable things can play such a significant role in the ways we know ourselves and, consequently, in the things we choose to pursue. Human beings may strive for logic, for coherence, for a rational and meaningful course to their lives, but serendipity, randomness, and chance are truly the kings of our experience. We ultimately build our order from the masonry that they provide.

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