Sunday, June 28, 2015

Relentlessly Inquisitive

Okay, so yes, this is a humor blog. But sometimes life happens. And it happened to me in a major way last weekend.

This is the kind of article that is difficult to write. After all, where do you begin when you wish to honor a person so influential in your life?

I lost my dad last Friday. For the past five years or so, he'd been suffering from Parkinson's disease. It stole him from us at 9:30 PM, June 19th.

I was there. I fed him his last meal. I held him when he struggled to breathe and was there when he breathed his last. I'm so very thankful for those last 5 hours we spent together.

I wish you could have known my dad. He was fun, he was goofy, he was intelligent. He was relentlessly inquisitive.

And if I ever wanted to understand how something worked, he’d patiently go through the theory – and often show, hands-on, how things worked in practice.

One of my favorite preteen memories was how he would make a game of grocery shopping. "Keep a running total of what our bill will be," he'd say. "And don't forget to add tax!" Not so easy in Texas: only non-foodstuffs like toothpaste were taxed.

Oh and the rules of the game prohibited you from writing anything down. Can you imagine the charisma it took to make something like that fun?

Then there was the time we 'bonded over bondo' - and a whole lot of rust that came along with my very first car. And yes, as a matter of fact, I do know what a butterfly valve on a single chamber carburetor looks like, thank you very much.

My dad was one of the very first aerospace engineers. Ever. Aerospace engineering wasn’t a curriculum or degree path back then. At that time, it was in its infancy, still being invented. And he was one of the ones who helped define what that would be, along with the others of that era who paved the way.

The Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal, Hunstville, Alabama
He was part of the team that moved from Missile Command in Huntsville, Alabama in 1961 to open the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. He was responsible for flight safety during NASA’s Project Mercury and the Gemini and Apollo Programs.

The astronauts and media darlings such as German scientist Werner Von Braun might have been the face of space exploration, but quiet men like my dad who worked tirelessly in the background and ensured that it actually happened - they were its soul.

Some of my favorite memories were of the times my dad took me with him to work.

I was – and still am – in awe of everything they accomplished back then. With not much much more than their brains, a pad of paper and a slide rule, they figured out how to split the atom and sent men to touch the surface of the moon.

And when things went wrong, they pulled those slide rules out and did on-the-spot calculations that would amaze engineering students today (you know, those kids who can’t part with their TI-86s…?).

It's hard to grasp that the computing power available to all of NASA in its entirety back then was less than that of the cell phone I hold in my hand.

To this day, I cannot fathom why he trusted me to keep my grubby little hands to myself and actually allowed me inside Mission Control. Not on a day while it was in use (!!) but still, those computer consoles ... I was leaning against them, touching them!

And then there's the massive Anechoic Chamber at the (now) Johnson Spacecraft Center. It's a huge room, filled with microwave material that absorbs all electromagnetic energy. The best I can describe it is that it sounds “dead” in there – all sound is absorbed by the cones fastened to every surface.

Running tests in the Anechoic Chamber on one of the first moon suits :-)
The entire back wall is a bay door that slides open. To this day, I’m fascinated by how they are able to extend their testing range beyond the chamber's four (five? six?) walls. Even the grass is mowed to a specified tier of heights!

The Anechoic Chamber today - still in use, still testing antennae & other equipment.
This photo was taken from the big sliding door, looking back into the room.
He knew tons of cool trivia about the space age, things not worthy of any major publication but interesting nonetheless. Like the reason there were 3 astronauts in the Apollo capsules. It began in a brainstorming session, when a coworker and architect named Bob Moody sketched it that way.

No one told him to do it, there was no task force that was charged with determining the best number of men to send to the moon. Just an idle sketch while brainstorming. No one ever saw a reason to change it or I'm sure it would have. But that's how it happened.

It was little things like that, I think, that fascinated me the most.

One of my earliest memories is going out to watch the astronauts skydive. I think it was then that my love of flight was born.

My dad knew all the astronauts. Usually, he claimed, because they were in his office yelling at him for grounding them for one reason or another.

Astronauts in a classroom at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston
My dad told me he once marched an astronaut out to a test craft he'd refused to allow the man to fly, because the explosive bolts on its ejection seat had passed their “expiry date.” He blew them, just to make a point. Only half of them fired.

One of the many reports sent to my dad regarding Flight Safety
Speaking of fires….

Astronaut Ed White was a man my dad enormously respected. He also happened to be Senior Pilot for the fated Apollo 1 mission.

Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee - Apollo 1
His death at the Cape impacted my dad tremendously. Flight Safety was involved in the discovery task force to determine the cause of the accident that killed Apollo 1’s crew. Listening to what they labeled the “Seven Minute Tape” – the length of time it took for the astronauts to perish – took a heavy toll on everyone involved.

He taught my mind to be nimble, he taught me to view numbers and mathematics as a fun puzzle, and – beyond all else – he instilled in me the unshakeable faith that if I could dream it, I could do it.

For me, there never was a glass ceiling. He shattered it and ensured it remained that way throughout my formative years. (It was quite a shock to get into college and experience it for the first time!)

We spent countless summer nights in the backyard, on lawn chairs or in hammocks, looking at the stars - just looking. Only I suppose it wasn't really "just" looking, because that's where he taught me about trajectories, how to tell time by the stars, to identify all the constellations and how to recognize space junk as it passed in the heavens above. And we had "Skylab dates" - my mom, my sister, my dad and me - where we tracked its progress overhead.

Those were such wonderful memories. And to this day, one of my favorite things to do is to seek out a dark night sky, and just sit back and stare up at the stars.

In the 1970s, he moved from NASA to Tracor, a defense contractor best known for developing the Aegis ballistic missile defense system and the Minuteman penaids for the Department of Defense. Most of his work there was classified.

And in the 80’s and 90’s, he was at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin. He was one of the very last men there, shutting off its lights when he left – and it closed – in 1993.

We shared a deep love of books and it was my joy to send his Kindle fresh stories every few months. In our talks during these last several years, he’d often want to know if I’d begun reading a certain book yet. Or he’d want me to let him know when I came to a certain part in a book we were both reading – he could hardly wait to discuss them with me.

He was disappointed, I know, when I switched my curriculum mid-stream from engineering and ended up majoring in radio/television/film instead. I suspect he hoped I’d follow in his footsteps, but he never gave me anything less than his full support regardless of the path I chose for myself. And when I went back to school to study Physics, he loved it. (Although, I think he loved it more that I ended up married to a physicist!)

He and Marty hit it off from the start and my stepson has many fond memories of engineering projects in our garage: my dad, my husband, my stepson...and me watching!

And when I completed my first solo flight, no one cheered louder.
He couldn't wait to fly with his daughter, the pilot.

So much of a person’s sense of self and identity is wrapped up in what they accomplish in life, but it’s equally important to know the character of a man.

Me and my fun, goofy, amazing dad
My dad was kind, endlessly patient (okay, almost endlessly!).
He was gentle and he loved animals. He was faithful.

There is a verse in the Tanakh that describes, I think, how he lived his life:
“O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God”.
(Micah 6:8)

His life has had a profound impact on mine. He taught me that a woman’s reach, too, should extend her grasp. And that, if I wished, I could touch the sky.

One of the last things I told him last Friday was that it looks like he was going to get to experience faster-than-light travel first.
And that soon, he could touch the stars.

I love you, daddy.
I always will.

Ralph Latta
April 16, 1930 - June 19, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

Seriously, it's just an expression

Me: Um, sweetie? I know it's hot and all, but....

Marty: Well, the expression had to have some basis.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Not your standard morning coffee

(as we head out the door)

Marty: Wait. (holds up coffee cup)
I need to add a few thermal units to this.

Me: You know, we humans usually just say we're going to nuke it for a few.

Marty: (disgusted look) Microwaves don't use nuclear fission to produce thermal energy, everyone knows that.

Me: Well you know, it's just a saying.

Marty: A totally inaccurate one.

Me: Yeah, I'll see what I can do about changing that for you.

Marty: You do that.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Of Swimming Pools and Ice Cubes

(as we drive past neighborhood pool)
Me: oh man, I could sure use some time in that. It's been so hot lately!

Me: uhm, okay... This is where you agree with me, sweetie.

Marty: Wha-- huh?
Me: You know, about the pool? Where was your head anyway?
Marty: Oh, I was just calculating how many gallons of ice you'd need to cool it by one degree.

Don't we all do that in our spare time?


Friday, June 5, 2015

Things I Come Home To

A block of wood, a laser level, 2 razor blades and a paperclip.

Okay, so it's not a paperclip, but I have no idea what those thingies are called.

And in case you were wondering:

Me: Did you at least leave me one? I planned to shave my legs tonight, you know.
Marty: Uh, what?