The Works of John Q. McDonald
John was born in Everett, Massachusetts. He lived and worked on the island of Hawaii for four years and is currently a spacecraft engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, though John usually considers himself an astronomer. John has published previously in Isotope, Amoskeag and Out of Line, and has been a three-time finalist in the writing contest of the San Francisco Writers Conference. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has finished a draft of one novel and is working on a second. He also paints in oils when he gets the chance.
All Nonfiction © John Q. McDonald
Of Turtles and Rockets:
Cape Canveral, Hawaii Island and the Environment of Space Flight
The sunshine is yellow and glitters like flame through crystal as it bounces from the small waves in a calm Pacific off the leeward shore of the island of Hawaii. The waves coast ashore and play with the sands on a beach broken by brown rocks, brittle a’a lava and pahoehoe that flowed from the Hualalai volcano many years ago. The slopes rise inland in a broad triangle, disappearing in the distance like a trick of perspective. Houses dot the hillside, flaunting nature, fate and Pele, the goddess of fire. The Hawaii belt road cuts across the shoulder of the mountain, lined with patches of graffiti fashioned in white coral arranged on the lava. Between the road and the sea is a flat strip of broken rock that makes up the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. For those who find it, stepping down a broken path of dirt and half-flower plants, the beach is isolated, beautiful, and one of the most reliable spots for seeing sea turtles basking in the shallow waters of coves and ponds constructed by ancient Hawaiians to trap fish.
The water here is warm and caressing. Turtles graze on long sea grass; the crests of their large oval shells peek above the surface and are nearly indistinguishable from rocks. They are almost tame, sedate as if blissed-out on bellies full of grass. Shy turtles stay away from beaches where they would be likely to encounter fleshy toes among the pebbles. But, here, one can step among them and watch them chew meditatively just below the surface.
It was this scene I thought of as I stood on a steel platform ninety feet above the flat Florida coastal plain, looking at the calm blue Atlantic, with a white stripe of breakers disappearing north along the coast, miles away. I was standing in the dizzying maze of steel beams and platforms, stairs and tangled cables that make up a launch gantry for Delta II rockets launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Sea turtles nest along the Florida coast, seeking safe sands in which to lay their soft eggs. Coastal development runs rampant for hundreds of miles north and south of the Cape, and I looked out along the beaches and wondered if this might be the turtles’ safest haven in Florida. Are there protected coves where one can wade among these sedate and alien beasts, or has Florida no safe beach left? I didn’t know, but my thoughts turned to the turtles despite the currents of excitement I felt standing on a rocket launch pad thirty and more years since I first dreamed it as I sat in front of a TV and watched an Apollo rocket lift off for its rendezvous with the Soviet Soyuz in 1975.
That historic docking wasn’t repeated until twenty years later, when the American space shuttle first docked with the Russian Mir space station. Now, the Russians still fly their Soyuz to the International Space Station, and the Americans have just canceled the Ares 1, a new Moon rocket meant to replace the space shuttle. The manned launches take place at a launch complex a few miles up the coast from here, on launch pads that began the Apollo missions to the Moon, so long ago now that some Americans today imagine those flights were a hoax.
Hawaii and Florida have much to tell us about modern life and of turtles. In both places, the story is a familiar one, the turtles struggle to satisfy their instinctive drive to live and reproduce in the shallows on the same beachy landscape that attracts millions of humans who douse themselves in the salty waves and roast on the sand.
That day, I stood a few feet from the fuselage of a Delta rocket, half a million pounds of thrust ready to push a cluster of satellites to twenty thousand miles per hour and halfway to the Moon. I stood there and thought of the turtles.
Jules Verne envisioned a gigantic cannon built in Florida to fire a shell to the Moon. His story is remarkable for his attempt to scale Civil War-era technology for this bold voyage. His astronauts relax in Victorian comfort on board, but the acceleration of a cannon shot would have squashed them all into unrecognizable mush. The idea of cannons launching things into space still arises from time to time, but the pressures of being fired from zero to thousands of miles per hour in a fraction of a second have yet to be overcome.
It took World War Two-era technology to finally get us off the ground. The V-2 rockets captured from Germany at the end of the war and launched from New Mexico and the Cape helped teach us how to get us off the planet at last. Through the fifties, rockets in the movies looked like art-deco versions of the V-2. Or was it the V-2 that looked like a low-tech version of the rockets in movies of the thirties? At every stage, the technology looked sleek and clean, as if formed from one perfect mold like a giant piece of silver jewelry. The movie When Worlds Collide haunted me as a child, as a star gone astray blew the Earth to smithereens. Mankind saved itself aboard a shining rocket launched from a roller-coaster sled that swept between mountains, giving the ship a jumpstart into the sky. This is another idea that still arises from time to time, occasionally in the form of a superconducting magnetic rail flinging objects into space from the surface of the Moon. It was, of course, the Soviets who reached orbit first with their beeping silver sea urchin passing overhead every ninety minutes.
By 2001 (the Space Odyssey, not the year) we were supposed to see PanAm flights to orbiting space stations and on to the Moon. The ships were sleek and even cozy in their peaceful glide through microgravity. Elton John was singing Rocket Man on his way to Mars.
We didn't land too far off in the opening years of the twenty-first century. Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin airlines, among many other things, is building rockets to fly tourists into near-Earth orbit. He converted Space Ship One -- the first privately-constructed manned rocket to reach an altitude of one hundred kilometers, duplicating the flight that took Alan Shepherd into space in 1961 -- into Virgin Galactic, set to carry thrill-seekers to the edge of space. Tourists have already paid their way, for as much as twenty million dollars, to the International Space Station. The founder of Amazon.com is building a spaceport in western Texas. These developments are relatively sudden. Until recently, nobody could seriously contemplate that private interests would be building their own fleet of spacecraft, not without a lot of government investment.
But, what of our first space-port? The central Florida shoreline is today’s Space Coast. Place names have entered the heroic history of 1960s spaceflight, with Cocoa Beach, Titusville, Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. The project of space flight today is a legacy of 1960s politics and a distinctly masculine sense of gadgetry and gung-ho know-how.
In Florida, there is a layered infrastructure like a network of tree-rings revealing the growth and retreat of the space program, corporate mergers and sales, alliances and entrepreneurs. A few miles inland from the main entrance to the Kennedy Space Center, there is a sign standing at the entrance to a business park. It has the worn look of the design style of the years after the first Space Shuttle launch in April of 1981. The muggy Florida climate hasn’t been kind to the sign, which reads Spaceport USA. There are streaks of mildew and panels that have fallen away. And yet this sign bespeaks a working landscape. Rockets take off from here on a dozen or more flights every year. For now, a few of them, the shuttles, are manned. Corporate, military and scientific projects of all sizes make up the rest.
The Astronaut Museum is on the road that leads to the KSC main gate. The visitor center is a busy complex, almost an amusement park, without visible thrill rides but with a garden of rockets towering over the roadside. The main gate itself is a little kiosk with a few concrete barriers designed to slow down gate-crashers.
The road continues straight as it passes through the southern end of the Space Center and on to the gates of Cape Canaveral. There are buildings of various size and vintage along the way, with the Kennedy headquarters and the space station development center next to each other along the right. On the left, low scrub and watery marshland spread out toward the coast and the long line of active and inactive launch pads that spread north and south.
I stopped the car in front of the headquarters building as a Florida softshelled turtle slowly pulled itself across the road, holding its hooked beak in the air. It was a foot and a half long, and almost black. As I waited, it slid down long grass and into the wet culvert beside the road. Wildlife is broadly present at the Cape, where a submarine base, air force station and NASA, along with a cruise ship terminal and sprawling suburban development, merge together to form a spaceport within and around the environs of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I thought of the turtles as I passed a conference of vultures picking apart what remained of an armadillo at the entrance to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Kennedy is home to manned spaceflight, while the more workaday business of unmanned rocket launches takes place on the air force base, which spreads down the coast from the space center to a Triton submarine base and the small city of Cape Canaveral, which begins a long line of surf cities down the coast.
The windward side of Hawaii Island gives one the impression of being lost in the ocean. The isolation of the island is complete here, with a dark and untamed sea. Hawaii is the most isolated populated land mass in the world. From Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States, the ocean whips around a narrow point of land where native Hawaiians once moored fishing canoes, and the sea is clear all the way past Tahiti to Antarctica. The coastline along the southeast of the island is more varied and forbidding than along the calm shores of the leeward side. The island itself is a study of dramatic contrasts, hosting most of the planet’s identified environmental zones, from coral reefs to permafrost tundra. Passing around the southern end of the island, the lovely coves of the Kona coast give way to isolated beaches of black or even green sand. The nervous tension of the Ka’u crack zone within Volcanoes National Park, evokes the theory that a vast shelf of land here will one day collapse into the Pacific to generate an unimaginable tsunami in South America. And beneath these very waves, a few miles offshore, the shifting continental plate gives rise to Lo’ihi, a new volcano on the sea floor that will one day crest over the waves and form a new island in the Hawaiian chain.
The Punalu’u black sand beach slopes sharply into chaotic waves that don’t have the crystalline translucence of the water on the west. The turbulent Pacific is a steely opaque gunmetal gray and blue. The beach is not heavily visited, though busloads of tourists stop here on their return trips from the national park. Pacific green sea turtles poke their heads above the waters in the shallows around big black rocks on either end of the beach. The far less common honu’ea, the hawksbill turtle, turns up here on occasion. Far out in the western islands, on scores of rocky islets stretching fifteen hundred miles to Midway, turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in relative seclusion and safety. They come ashore along Hawaii’s southeastern coast as well, moving far too slowly for the humans zipping around them in a blur of surfboards and tourist buses.
Basic orbital dynamics show that there is an advantage to launching a rocket as close to the equator as possible, where the Earth is spinning at a thousand miles per hour. In the first seconds after liftoff, a rocket burns most of its fuel. The Earth’s spin gives the rocket that much more carrying capacity, or range. Cape Canaveral is not too far from the southernmost point in the continental United States. The Europeans launch from the coast of Guyana. Russian space flights start in Kazakhstan, which was one of the southernmost portions of the contiguous Soviet Union, but they also launch into orbits closer to the poles. Every mile further south is an advantage. One private launch operation, SeaLaunch, sails a platform south from Long Beach and launches Russian Zenit rockets from the remote equatorial Pacific. The Air Force operates a missile range at Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, where SpaceX has recently begun launching small rockets into orbit.
Despite Key West’s claim to the contrary, the southern tip of Hawaii Island is the southernmost point in the United States. This makes its southeast coast an attractive spot from which to launch rockets. Recently, such a proposal met with fierce opposition, partly, at least, in the name of the turtles that make their homes here. One can’t be sure if Hawaiians were working against their best economic interests in refusing the opportunity of development along the coast. Then again, anyone who looks to the town of Cape Canaveral as an example of the kind of development that goes along with a locally grown space program can’t be blamed for being turned off by the idea. That town may or may not be typical of the growth around government installations, but, with its miles of cheap strip malls and not one inch of undeveloped beachfront, it doesn’t offer much hope to anyone wanting to preserve the largely pristine Hawaiian coastline.
A trio of Japanese tourists was taking photos with a green sea turtle beached at Punalu’u. They can be stopped from sitting on its green black shell, but still they pet its mottled surface. One set a pack of cigarettes there as he lit a smoke against the relentless wind. A single flipper moved slightly in the sand and the turtle seemed too sleepy to notice. I wondered what it would take to frighten the turtle away, sending her out to remote western islands, safe from all this attention, benevolent and otherwise. I looked into the sky above the point of land on the northern edge of the beach and imagined the majestic arc of a rocket contrail rising into the sky. It’s a dramatic contrast between the natural and the high tech. Ultimately, much of what gets shot into space is put there for the benefit of mankind. Satellites monitor global climate, for example, and can largely be credited for the formidable mass of data dramatically illustrating the looming danger to the environment and every creature on the planet, from Japanese tourists, to honey bees, to the spotted owl, malaria mosquito, banana slug, blue whale, African elephant, hummingbird, armadillo and sea turtle.
The Hawaiian spaceport didn’t happen. There is a lot, after all, that gets launched on rockets that makes people wary, as well. Spy satellites, unknowable corporate gadgets, snooping spacecraft of all kinds, mysterious military experiments, and weapons. In 2007, China demonstrated with blithe efficiency that you can, indeed, turn one satellite into thousands of tiny orbiting fragments by hurling a rocket-propelled rock at it. The United States proved the same thing in 1985 and again in 2008. There’s something exclusive about who and what entities have access to space that makes people leery of the whole enterprise. Despite the fact that astronomy is the third largest industry on the island, many Hawaiians remain suspicious; some are convinced there is an underlying military motive behind the observatories atop 14,000-foot Mauna Kea.
The gate between Kennedy and the Cape is at the end of a causeway that crosses the Banana River wetlands and which offers a panoramic view of several operating launch pads, some of them miles away, the gigantic vehicle assembly building where space shuttles are assembled for launch, and the occasional manatee floating in the shallows. Another vulture dines alone on the roadside near a sign announcing the authority of the First Space Wing. There is a gritty feel to the hangars along the road, creamy peach in color and housing rockets and other flying machines in varying states of assembly. The road opens up as it turns to the south, between the low brush on the left and the wetlands to the right. It passes buildings nestled among the trees on sandy patches of ground.
An osprey glides low across the road, hunting on both land and sea, while another sits a nest in a mass of large twigs atop a pole on the median. Perhaps knowing they’re a little too big for the ospreys, armadillos are a regular sight, waddling in the green grass along the shoulder. They are road-kill, too, and the vultures take advantage. From the many clusters of shrugging black birds out here, the road-kill is frequent despite infrequent traffic. Space Launch Complex 17 appears on the left, two tall towers of gray scaffold somewhere beyond the thick carpet of green. The road turns off in two long arcs designed to accommodate the long trucks that deliver the ninety-foot main stage of the Delta rocket to the processing facility near the launch pads.
Lighthouse Road heads straight to the shore but is interrupted after about a mile by SLC-17 and the eight-foot barbed wire fence that encircles the complex. The Cape Canaveral lighthouse, itself, was first built in 1847, has been dismantled, rebuilt, and moved with the erosion of the shoreline. It stands now, black and white striped, and dramatically situated on the coast among active launch pads and the concrete “pads” of historic launch sites, from missile tests to the first astronauts who flew into near-Earth orbit on converted ICBMs. It’s a dramatic thought, really. Standing at the foot of one of these rockets at the visitor center, I looked up at a towering tube of shining metal, imagined it full of volatile explosives and simply couldn’t grasp the frame of mind in a man who could look up at this thing and say, not even to himself, but to the people with their fingers on The Button, “yeah, sure, I’ll ride that thing…”
The launch complex itself is a deceptively simple place. There are two launch pads dating back to the start of the American space program. They are operated now by the US Air Force and the United Launch Alliance, a private consortium of Lockheed and Boeing. One of the two launch towers today encloses the rocket for a project that will loft five small spacecraft into high orbits from which they will study the mechanisms in the Earth’s aurora, the energy bursts behind the Northern Lights. Between the launch pads is a single low blockhouse built with heavy walls of concrete and half buried in the soil. All of this, along with the infrastructure of fuel, power and personnel, stand behind a well-guarded barbed wire fence.
While the blockhouse was once the place from which launches were controlled, most of its functions have been automated or wired for remote control. On the wall next to a grey steel door four inches thick is painted the logo for the First Space Wing with their motto, Ad Astra. But the first impression upon entering the blockhouse is the odor of mildew rising from the carpet. Florida is a wet place, and the Cape the site of many stunning thunderstorms (a frightening prospect surrounded by all this rocket fuel). The ceiling is low, and the racks that power the spacecraft as they sit on the launch pad have to be tilted far back to roll in to the shadowy control rooms buried here. The men who move the racks move themselves with massive grace when the equipment is delivered.
Around the walls of the darkened room are other racks, permanent parts of the machine of space flight. Communications racks and monitors, including a television hanging from the ceiling and tuned to Fox News. There is a small console manned at all hours. I never got a good idea what this person did from hour to hour, but this is a complex enough operation that constant monitoring is probably not a bad idea. It has worked that way since 1957.
As the spacecraft sit atop the rocket, awaiting launch day, they are powered by equipment racks that will go back to the contractors the moment the rocket leaves the planet. A massive cable, the umbilical, runs more than a thousand feet from the blockhouse to the top of the rocket, and the first days out at the launch site are given over to verifying the many connections this cable supports. Three thousand miles away, spacecraft operators can see the temperature of the spacecraft change by a tenth of a degree. This can seem a technological marvel, except for the peculiar fact that, after launch, the same temperature change will be detected from a distance of a hundred twenty thousand miles.
The feeling in the air here is one of masculine assurance, the kind of professionalism and bureaucratic cynicism that comes from an operation largely run by current and retired military personnel. To be sure, there are women in the operation, and they are every bit as competent as the men and often more so, but the atmosphere is decidedly male. Rocket launching does not lend itself to too many feminine metaphors, and when women aren’t around, the men revert to the chummy camaraderie of their sex.
A space shuttle launch pad stands a few hundred yards from the beach that stretches along the coast, paralleled by a road connecting dozens of current and defunct launch sites. The beach is undisturbed, rarely visited, but cluttered with bits of litter washed ashore, from fragments of driftwood to more common plastic bottles, bags and the rings that connect six-packs. How does this stuff get out there? Are boaters tossing their garbage overboard? Are coastal landfills merely spilling into the sea? These plastic rings can choke any sea creature or bird unfortunate enough to get its head stuck in one of those loops. A small enough turtle, too, of course. I turned away from the shuttle launch pad, which was quiet, empty, and a hazy gray in the distance, to look at the beach. I hoped I wouldn’t find the sad spectacle of a hawksbill trapped in beery plastic.
The hawksbill turtles found along the Florida coast are the same species found on Punalu’u beach in Hawaii; the Atlantic green turtles are cousins to the honu on the Kona coast. The Cape Canaveral beaches are not sheltered, and I didn’t see any of the big turtles in the waters, but the beach was quiet, peaceful and had a welcome secluded feel so rare along the Florida coast, and increasingly rare along any American coastline. When a space shuttle launches from here, it rises on a pillar of flame hundreds of feet long and with a roar improbably loud for its size, and heard for miles. This happens just a few times a year. In the meantime, the coast is quiet, protected by its isolation, an accidental side effect of all this massive technology. A vulture alit on a white metal box, a power outlet for launch monitoring or weather equipment, turned its back on the sun and basked, keeping a wary eye on me and growing nervous as I moved about on the grassy slope rising behind the strip of sand.
When I turned away from the sea again, there was a movement in the weeds. A large gopher turtle was pushing himself into a burrow in the knoll. When I stepped closer, I had just a moment to see the square shape of his dusty brown shell disappear, along with his hind feet and tail, moving with surprising dispatch. The vulture noticed the turtle at the same moment but stepped along the box to the edge farthest from me. It was a clear blue day, and the landscape, seen from this low rise, stretched flat for as far as the eye could see, with the grayish towers of launch pads and the giant box of the vehicle assembly building a few miles inland from here. The faint sound of the sea breeze enhanced the quiet. I drove back down the coast, passing a pond reflecting the tower of the shuttle launch pad. There are alligators here, too, of course, but the only one I saw was in the water at the Kennedy visitor center, looking up at kids dropping bits of balled up bread that bounced off the gator’s nose.
Back in the blockhouse between launch pads 17A and 17B, there are just two narrow windows that look out onto the structures beyond. The glass is tinted green by its sheer thickness, a heavy four inches between viewer and rocket. A set of mirrors reflects the view over the rise of the earthen berm outside. The blockhouse once housed personnel during launches, but since a Delta exploded a few seconds after liftoff in 1997, the blockhouse has been evacuated four hours before any launch, its activities automated or conducted remotely from facilities miles away. The networks of remote control are intricate and vast, from NASA to the labs of the contractors, to Delta launch control a couple miles from the pad. Looking through the thick green glass today is like peering through murky green seawater at an off-kilter mirror stained and marked by the weather. The rocket was only barely visible there, a gray mass in a green-gray distance, seemingly somewhere else in time.
The superstructure that surrounds the rocket is 140 feet tall and rests on giant steel wheels. Concrete channels beneath the rocket guide the fiery exhaust plumes away from the pad. The half million pounds of thrust from the Delta II engine and boosters are the dramatic signature to the liftoff. The main stage is eight feet in diameter and a hundred twenty feet tall. Nine booster rockets, each some forty feet long and three feet in diameter, are just visible through the gray scaffolding. The rocket is sky blue, setting off the gleaming white boosters and the nose cone hidden within the top of the launch pad structure. From a distance, not much of this was visible. From nearby, I had the incongruous realization that this object, smaller than I imagined it would be, would still travel at seventeen thousand miles per hour and well on its way to nearby outer space. I paused for a moment to try to grasp that fact. And fail.
At its base, the pad is an array of concrete support structures and bunkers. Through a low doorway just beneath the flared nozzles of the booster rockets, there is a room full of pipes and gray machinery that support the various equipment on the tower, everything from air conditioning to fueling systems to the maintenance of a near clean-room environment in a large room at the top of the pad. Paint peels from the walls, and there is an industrial air of damp and mildew. Moments before the ignition of the rocket motors, water floods the base of the pad to dampen the vibrations and noise that attend the blast, which is more a controlled explosion than an engine starting. Gauges, pipes and conduits emit a sense of industrial age. I could easily imagine overhead the blast of the rockets that started the space age half century ago, and from this spot.
I climbed aboard a cramped elevator, which left me at the ninth floor of the pad. I stepped out on to a steel platform and into an array of gray beams that fell into my path from all angles and my thoughts drifted to the Eiffel Tower and the chaotic poetry of its structure. This was more a fugue than a poem, though. I stepped to a railing and looked down. Around the base of the pad are the structures one would expect, large white tanks shielded by concrete walls, lightning rods and cables. Beyond this patch of concrete, the green scrub of the coastal plain stretches into the distance. The shore is a line of white breakers and a pale strip of sand. It is a clear day, and the sky touches the sea at the horizon in a crisp line between blue and bluer. A mile and a half away, the lighthouse stands like a brick rocket in its clearing beside the road. For more than a hundred sixty years, before the advent of launch pads, it was the tallest structure for many miles along the Space Coast.
The steel beams were marked, ineffectually, with yellow and black striped tape. The hardhat I wore feels like a tortoise shell and was dinged and scratched with use and abuse. I climbed a narrow staircase to the floor of the White Room, the clean environment at the top of the launch pad in which the satellites are mated to the top of the rocket. I suited up in a cramped vestibule and, dressed uncomfortably in Tyvek overalls, my shoes covered in blue booties, I entered the room. At this level, I was at the top of the second stage of the rocket. Five spacecraft and their third-stage engine would be attached here in a few days. The rocket was an eight-foot wide blue pipe that rose a few feet through the steel floor with a primer-coated framework exposed at the top, the green color of the inside of an unfinished aircraft body. The ceiling was low, but with a large round opening closed off by steel panels. The lights were bright and two closed circuit cameras monitor the room. The engineers picked up a phone to make a quick voice-check with the crew in the blockhouse and were interrupted by a loudspeaker announcement that the pad must be evacuated for a test that, evidently, introduces a risk of igniting the solid fuel in the boosters. How high the risk, I never learn, but it was easy to accept an excess of caution here. When the launch failed in 1997, just a few hundred feet above the pad, the fireball and debris field was perhaps half a mile across.
I stepped out again onto the steel platform outside the clean room. The breeze was freshened and the sea was blue but for that white stripe of breakers at the beach. It was quiet, like a mountaintop, and if I leaned out over the railing, I could feel myself soaring over the Florida seashore with the three or four vultures gliding there just at eye level. The sea turtles that swim beneath those waves do so with a graceful gliding motion not unlike that of the birds. Bundled in their bulky shells, they bear a passing resemblance to astronauts stiff in their suits and ready to walk in space. I was too far from the water to see if their heads were popping above the waves. But I couldn’t help but think of the turtles there in the water, tortoises scrabbling up the dunes, turtles pushing themselves across the road, and those basking in the shallow warm waters in Hawaii. The idea of the turtles and their environment, their life, was far enough away from the excitement I felt standing on the launch pad, but they were there, connected in some long sinuous line from their home among the waves to the top of a rocket soon to roar into outer space and half way to the Moon.
I wouldn’t be in Florida for the day of the launch. In the weeks that followed, the small but sophisticated spacecraft were attached to the top of the rocket and enclosed in the fairing. We simulated the launch, listening to voices over old phone lines, connected around the Cape and as far away as Berkeley, where, with the flight operations team, I stood in the control room and watched as the countdown progressed in that classic way, a tradition of space flight since before Glenn or Gagarin. On a television screen, the rocket stood apart from the steel structure I had stood upon that day. The steel wheels had rolled the structure away from the rocket four hours before, revealing the entire completed missile for the first time. Blue and white and shining in a lowering sunlight, the rocket stood alone on that flat green plain by the ocean. The nearest people were a mile away. White puffs of condensed vapor puffed out of a port on one side, outgassing from the liquid oxygen vaporizing in the rocket. Around and around, the voices on the phone lines spiraled in regular go/no-go polls. The voices were clipped with military efficiency. They were calm, but the atmosphere in the room was electric and building. Our task, at launch, was to watch the data from the spacecraft on board. We needed to remain connected to the rocket and to all those voices, up until the moment of liftoff. We were “go” as long as the technology behaved.
The large liquid-fueled engine fired a fraction of a second before six of the nine solid fuel boosters ignited. There was a blaze of fire and smoke from the base of the rocket and the missile, all twelve stories of it, leapt from the launch pad, clearing the tower in a couple of seconds and accelerating at a pace hard to judge against a featureless sky deep with twilight. The energy in the room seemed to break. Whatever we had done to get the satellites ready would suffice now, and the next time we would hear from them would be through a long-distance satellite radio link ninety minutes later and a thousand miles over the sea turtles basking in Hawaii.
The base of the launch pad, where I stood a couple of weeks before, was engulfed in that impossible flame, most of it holding up well after a hundred such launches. Still, I could not avoid imagining myself standing there, maybe next to the long pool of water used to quell the rocket’s roar, watching this monster rise into the sky to disappear at the top of a column of smoke a few minutes later. The calm of the wildlife refuge, the seclusion of the beach, would be broken for those few moments, cracked by the sound of the rocket and then pushed back into a silence more profound for the suddenness of the noise.
I thought of the turtles again, and the numbing disconnect between the life they lead in the shallows and the life we lead, one that transports us from a Hawaiian cove marked by centuries-old walls and paths, to a steel tower beside a Florida beach, enclosing a machine that would spin out into space, attempting some comprehension of the invisible processes that mark the northern and southern skies with curtains of luminous greens and reds. The six boosters fell away to spiral into the Atlantic. The remaining three ignited, spreading an orange plume behind the ascending rocket.
What do sea turtles and space flight have in common, after all, but the very distance between them? The human eye has an amazing dynamic range. It is said it can detect as little light in absolute darkness as a single photon, and it can nearly grasp the intense brightness of the Sun at noon. The space between those, the orders of magnitude, are vast. The human mind can comprehend, too, the very tiny and the very vast, from the space between the quarks deep within the atoms, to the cold glow that permeates the entire universe. The distance between the turtles, pulling themselves across the road leading to the launch pad, and the rocket that stands there, is bridged by the fact of their existence. The mind crosses that distance of comprehension, or of curiosity. There is beauty in the quiet basking of turtles in Hawaiian shallows, and a strange beauty in the arc of smoke reaching into space overhead. They are connected by long threads of perception. They share the same world.
I worry about the turtles, though. The one on the road may not make it past the tour bus bearing down upon it. The vultures will be glad to finish the job. I worry about the space they share with the bustle of activity around the rockets lined up on the Space Coast. The distance between them seems fragile, as if one cannot survive in the face of the other. And yet, that precarious balance is, for now, maintained by a common intention that connects turtles to rockets. That common intention is ours, our responsibility to the Earth, and our intense, sometimes blind, curiosity about it.