The image registers before deep realization fully sinks in. Then, just as your thinking mind begins to assimilate what you've been anticipating for so long, the sound and vibration slam into your body, and realization suddenly becomes a visceral thing.
"That's a big rocket, and it's leaving the planet!"
On February 27, 2014, at 3:37 in the morning, I stood on a secure observation deck reserved for media and VIPs and watched a Mitsubishi H2-A rocket lift off carrying an extraordinarily ambitious satellite. It's called GPM, or Global Precipitation Measurement, and it's been a background hum in my life for more than 14 years. After three short movies, endless presentations, and two trips to Japan, this is a major human enterprise that carries a part of me into space.
That's the departure. I always wanted to go to space.
GPM's departure is also my arrival. The event of it's rocket leaving the planet is the culmination of a childhood dream. It's a cinematic fantasy harbored since my first exposure to lift-offs when I sat on my grandparent's floor on Argyle Terrace in Irvington, New Jersey, watching Apollo 17 head for the moon. For years I did everything I could to be one of the rare people qualified to ride on of those fiery pillars up, up, and away. But fate is a coyote, and my trajectory went places other than the astronaut corps.
It's interesting how big changes in plans aren't always a bad thing.
I'm extremely fortunate to have been able to play a part, not only attend but also to make a contribution. I got to tell the GPM story to the world, and because of that I had a front row seat not only to the launch but to the cross-disciplinary efforts of what it takes to accomplish a launch. I am not an astronaut because I discovered something different about my place in the universe, even as I trained my childhood and teenage self to ride rockets. As much as I'm drawn to the idea of exploration, I'm drawn significantly more by the idea of collecting and connecting ideas into stories. It turns out the two are related. Storytelling in it's many and motley forms is an exploration of it's own, to be sure, and the adventures that often accrue in the process of telling a good story can take your physical self all over the world. (Hey, I'm in Japan as I write this!) But if physical miles may be profound, the mental miles can be light years long. They can move without measure.
As I publish these words, I'm one day from beginning the long journey back to the United States from the island of Tanegashima in the south of Japan. The adventure, both in the past few months, and over the past fourteen years, has put me in touch with extraordinary people, and also granted access to a view of humanity that transcends any singular person.
We are a challenging species. We challenge each other; we challenge ourselves; we challenge our collective place in the universe. The rocket launch from Japan defines the work of almost countless people, struggling to define and then make real a creative enterprise that is so profoundly bigger than any one person's individual abilities. We argue with each other as much as we try to collaborate with each other that one wonders sometimes if our great, numbing, organizational schemes are simply the evolutionary ways we've developed simply to get anything done. From a distance, the results of large numbers often tend toward the mediocre, the moderate, the manifestations of masses rather than work fired by a singular clarity of vision. Not every big enterprise regresses to the mean, but the larger the numbers involved in any enterprise, the greater the chance that results will not deviate much from the center of the road. Just look at our national political condition as Exhibit A.
Is this defendable--or fair--just hours after the most advanced system of it's kind successfully reached it's working orbit? Probably not. But to use another familiar trope, the ends cannot justify the means, and GPM is the result of a torturously long fourteen year development process. It should not take so long, but it always does. It should not require so many hundreds of thousands of unnecessarily expended human hours, but it always does. It should not require so many lives thrown on the fires of extraneous effort….but it always does.
And yet there it is, 253 miles up, functioning, just a few days away from sending its first data back to scientists on the ground. I am struggling to accept that even as I champion the mission, even as I'm sincerely humbled to have had a chance to be a participant in the long walk to this moment, I may have to concede some of my idealism. Perhaps I must concede that it does require so many tedious, challenging, bureaucratic, often wasteful hours to make something substantial. Perhaps singular, focused, clarity of vision is something that's always an outlier on the scatter plot of experience. Perhaps the only way something can so completely transcend ordinary is to be the expression of an individual, already just a single point in an ocean of points.
Cultural observations of an enterprise as big as a space launch, seen from a distance, almost makes individual people disappear into a sea of humanity. But as we all know, it's the individuals in that sea that make each and every single moment happen. Like all major enterprises, GPM has it's visionaries. It has it's leaders, it has it's lieutenants, and its has its nameless army. In all categories some are better than others; some worthy of different titles than the ones they have. There are shambling husks of humans dragged along on staff, and there are bright lights carrying far more weight than their own, and as always, there's the vast, working middle.
With the roar of rocket engines only just now starting to leave my immediate consciousness, I'm aware that morning comes like it comes every single day. We scratch and yawn, stagger for toothbrushes, wonder if there's coffee. (Note to savvy travelers: Japan is not a coffee country!) Already people and responsibilities from more quotidian parts of life are starting to ask for attention, and with the rocket gone, patience is limited.
My soul drifts a little. Reengagement with the day-to-day brings a numbing list of mundane necessities, but that's not really the problem. If excellence outside the bounds of mediocrity is always an outlier, and like all statistical outliers there's almost no way to predict when and where they will appear, I am left to wonder if the soul of someone in love with being alive -- my soul-- will forever be conscious of an endless deadline clock, a countdown to launch that never really arrives. There's an old, familiar restlessness that seeps in, a limited tolerance for mediocrity and the mundane, and a roaring rush of rocket flame in my immediate memory to mix it all up for me.
I write these words in a secured area on the third floor of STA-2, the Spacecraft Testing and Assembly Building, Number Two on the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. Bathed in fluorescent light, perched on an ancient, stained desk chair at the corner of a worn-out steel desk, there's a flurry of activity throughout the building to pack up and go home. All morning I've been doing the same, wrapping hard drives, endless cables, cameras, memory cards, lights, and more. Shortly I'll be back at it, working shoulder to shoulder with friends and acquaintances from NASA, from JAXA, from Mitsubishi, and a rented legion of contractors.
I do not expect that I'll ever pass this way again...but you never know.
Life has a way of surprising you with unexpected changes in plans, but those surprises and opportunities are only things that can be pursued if they're noticed in the first place. Then there's the work to make those opportunities matter, and at the end of the journey, whatever the journey, it's the work of doing something extraordinary that's always the most profound experience of all.
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