A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

To the moon

My father was a rocket scientist. Well, OK, not precisely. More specifically he was a rocket engineer. Or, more precisely still, he was an engineer who worked on the computers that went into space and navigated the rockets. He worked on the Saturn V that lifted Apollo astronauts toward the moon, he worked on the Lunar Module, which touched down on the moon, he worked on the Lunar Rover, which drove astronauts around on the moon. All of this before he was 30 years old.

I never remember him talking about it at all, talking about what it was like to send men to the moon, to be involved in such a tremendous adventure, but, ten years ago, in the little farming town on the edge of the Mississippi River where he grew up, I had a conversation with one of his friends from those days, and he told me that they all felt like they had lived in a magical time. After the Apollo missions ended, they all later worked on the Space Station and more mundane things like the ticket-taker on the BART trains that I used to take when I was a graduate student living on the San Francisco Bay. But nothing in their lives was ever quite like a being a bunch of thirty-year-old kids living in northern Alabama having the blind optimism to think that if there was a rocket being built they knew enough to put the computers together to make those rockets bring people to the moon. And back. And then actually doing it.

I wish I could ask him about it, but that opportunity is a decade gone.

Being the mid nineteen seventies, he had a marriage and he had three children – me, my older brother Andy, my younger sister Cammy – all before he turned 30, and we all lived in what now seems to me like a huge house in northern Alabama. Being the mid nineteen seventies, the marriage didn’t last. He moved to an apartment across town, then to Maryland, then to North Carolina, then to Houston, and finally, for his last few weeks, back to North Carolina to stay in the house of my sister.

In those last few weeks my brother and I were there at my sister’s house, too. I was in the middle of my third year of being a professor at Caltech and I was still trying to get on my feet. But, that quarter, I simply canceled my class midway through and gave everyone in attendance an “A.” Oddly, I had no complaints. I then flew across the country to meet my father and my sister and soon my brother and we all stayed in North Carolina for a while.

It was too late then to say much. He was mostly groggy from the pain medication. But we talked some about what was happening in all of our lives. Though he never would say such a thing directly, I think he was proud that I done well enough at school to land a job being a professor at Caltech. I remember complaining about some of the more mundane aspects of the job to him and having him softly glare back and whisper: “do you know how lucky you are?”

I told him about a new project I was starting that I was quite excited about. We had just started using an old telescope at Palomar Observatory to make repeated wide-field observations of the night sky in search of particularly large objects in the outer solar system. I told him that I was certain there would be things larger than Pluto out there to see and that I really hoped to be the one to find them. He always liked long-term plans and was happy to see that I finally seemed to have one. “But what if there isn’t anything out there?” he asked, in his always not-quite-so-encouraging way. There will be, I said. I’m sure there will be.

We talked about the long term relationship I was in that, though I didn’t know it at the time, was within a month of finally falling apart. I told him why the relationship was hard and not going so well. I remember perhaps the only words of relationship advice he ever gave me: “There shouldn’t be any fighting. Find someone you don’t fight with.” Though the words resonated with me, my father’s accumulated lifetime credibility in this realm was not high. So I filed the advice away.

He died a few days later. It was ten years ago today.

I’ve missed not having a father for the past decade. I feel we were still, that late in both of our lives, getting to know and understand each other, something we had never had much of an opportunity to do when I was younger.

But, today, I am thinking of the things that I wish I had the opportunity to show him over the past decade. I don’t have much in the way of spiritual beliefs about any afterlife, but, if there is one, and the deceased person can pick his form of communication with the corporeal world, I am pretty sure that my father would pick the web. When he first got cancer nearly 20 years ago he immediately took to the then-new internet as a means of educating himself and everyone else about everything to do with the cancer, the treatments, the options. It’s the sort of thing that everyone does routinely these days, but, back then, it was still quite novel. So if he’s out there anywhere, I like to think of him hooked in through some vast astral server. So this is for him, vial HTML, which he first introduced me to:
Dad –
A lot has happened in the past decade that I think you’d have been proud to have heard about, but there are three that I really wish I could share with you.

Remember that project I told you about ten years ago? The one that started looking over vast swaths of sky for things that moved? The one where I thought I would find another planet? Well, it took a few years before it began paying off, but it has been a pretty spectacular ride. There were indeed things out there to be found. One – so far – was even bigger than Pluto. I wouldn’t have guessed at the time, but all of it caused a big shakeout in the solar system leading to the new decision to recognize only 8 planets. That’s a pretty big change from your lifetime, where Pluto was a planet when you were born and Pluto was a planet when you died. I think you would have enjoyed watching the changes happen. And I sort of suspect that, though you would never actually say it directly to me, you would be somewhat proud of me. I’m sorry you weren’t around to see it.

Some other big news of the past decade: you were right about relationships and fighting, I think. Who would have guessed that? It took me another four years after that conversation, but I did find that person you were trying to guide me towards. I got married to Diane six years ago. I know that you were perhaps always convinced that no one was ever good enough for one of your kids, but, I have to admit, I think you would be charmed. I look at the picture that was taken on our wedding day sometimes, the one that has Diane and me and my brother and his wife and my sister and her husband and their two kids and my mother and my step-father and I wish that you were in the picture too. It would have been a bit awkward, these extended family things always were, but the awkwardness would have been better than the empty spot that I now see every time I see that picture.

There’s one more thing I wish I could show you. Her name is Lilah, and she is a 3 ½ year old bundle of silliness, stubbornness, curiousness, sweetness, and talkativeness. It is part of the mythology from my childhood that you were not particularly pleased about having that third child, but when it turned out to be a baby girl you pretty quickly got over your misgivings. I think you would like Lilah, and I think it would be pretty hard for you to hide. She asks about you sometimes. She asked about you this morning, even. “But Daddy, who was your daddy?” and I tell her about you. “Why did he die?” she asks. I explain about being sick, about having cancer. She understands a little, but, clearly, only a little. “Do you get another daddy when yours dies?” No Lilah. You never do. You never, ever, do.

What Lilah doesn’t yet know is that you don’t want another daddy when yours dies. You just want yours back. And when you realize that that is never going to happen, you at least want a chance to tell him a few things. And you hope that he has some chance of listening in, at least every ten years or so.


  1. Thank you for this very touching post.

  2. I'll never forget your father welding the rear wheel of my motorcycle back together--he could things that seemed like magic to us kids. My father was an attorney for NASA, but I've always thought that sending a man to the moon, to be part of that team in any capacity, must've been the greatest job in the world. It's pretty obvious that your dad instilled that same sense of reckless wonder into the whole family...just wish it could have worn off more on us neighborhood kids! :)

    Glad to have found your blog and I look forward to reading more.

    --Rodger Ling

  3. Very well written Mike. My father passed away in March 2008, and it is always good to put things in perspective.
    -- Kevin

  4. Energy: neither created nor destroyed...he knows! I am new to this blog, don't wish to step into anything too personal, but there is great beauty in what has been shared here. I thank you for the information - I thank you for the beauty.

  5. "Well, my Daddy left home when I was three (Johnny Cash)"...actually it was before my second birthday. I have no memory of my natural father from childhood. My older brother arranged a meeting with him and my half-sisters as an adult and quite frankly, it was a bit strained.

    My grandfather was furious over the breakup and ordered her to "marry the first GI that came along". Since I was too young to understand, that GI became "Daddy". Remarrying outside the religion was a violation of the laws of the Catholic Church, so they excommunicated her. It wasn't until much, much later that I found out how devasted she was to be separated from her background.

    Dad was assigned to the Military Advisory and Assistance Group in Taiwan. This was a diplomatic post and he did well and was promoted. I think it had to do with the International Incident and his handling of it. We had a dog, Skippy, so named because he was the color of Skippy Peanut Butter. Skippy got out one day and the Chinese ate him.

    We went back to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. One day I found a fossil, a common sea animal called a brachiopod. It was an excellent specimen. I showed it to Mom and waxed all enthusiastic, but Mom was shocked when I said that this showed the Earth must be very old and so the Bible must be incorrect. I was about 10 years old at the time. Later that year Dad was assigned to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

    There was a huge difference between WSMR and the Apollo Program, namely that President Kennedy decreed that the moon show would be transparent and all details would be made public, whereas WSMR was cloaked in the deepest secrecy. The President visited WSMR on Armed Forces Day. I was hoping he would speak of the Space Program but the speech was a tribute to the military. WWII was still fresh in people's minds. It was a different era.

    As a dependent of an enlisted man I was way, way back in the crowd, too far to make out any details of the President's face. By this time Dad had made Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank. In fact, he made Command Sergeant Major but I don't remember if he held the rotating post during the President's visit. He was in charge of the hospital and the military police, and the latter were charged with keeping the National Secrets secret.

    Being a kid and, like most humans, enjoying fireworks displays, I thought the rocket launches were Neato. I watched a Redstone go up one day. The flame started at the base in silence and the rocket rose, then when it was a considerable distance in the air, this incredibly loud, deep bass noise shook everything down into my bones. Far away, a cloud developed in front of the missile and formed a ring, and the missile flew though the ring and was gone. The incredible sound continued for quite some time after the Redstone disappeared.

    Mom didn't look like she thought it was Neato. Later she described a piece of her personal history that told me why. April 16, 1947 (before I was born) seemed like such a quiet morning in Texas City. Mom was working at the local hospital. She didn't hear the incredibly loud sound because it was infrasonic, >20 Hz. Suddenly a huge mob of horribly burned people flooded the hospital. There were nowhere near enough medical personnel to handle this, they kept coming and coming, the ambulances were overwhelmed and people kept arriving in cars, busses, some on foot, there were not enough beds so they were laid out on the floors in the hallways.

    For nearly two sleepless days and nights Mom, fresh out of nursing school, was assigned the horrifying responsibility of triage. Some would die no matter what kind of treatment they got, so they didn't get treatment. Some would live even if they weren't treated, so they got no treatment. Those in between got treatment. She kept working through exhaustion, finally one of the doctors who had arrived from all over the nation ordered her to go home and get some sleep. Not an easy task...

    2.3 kilotons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had exploded in a ship in the harbor. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States. 581 people were killed.


    The marriage fell apart just before I entered high school. Upon graduation, imbued with the Honor of Patriotic Duty, and more importantly realizing that Mom could not put both me and my brother through college at the same time, I joined the Army. I wound up in artillery. Mom was horrified, but she hadn't yet told me about Texas City.

    While I was away, Mom married a Catholic man, which made her very happy. She kept remarking how much I had "changed", but believe me, my changes were not nearly as radical as hers. Our relationship became dysfunctional. I didn't want to become a Catholic and this disappointed her no end. I didn't want to interfere with her happiness so I kept my mouth shut.

    Rodger, I rode a motorcycle during my teenage years, thanks for the fond memories.

    Mike, it gave me that warm fuzzy feeling to read about a functional family. I wish that had happened for me. Thank you. :)

    -Mike Emmert

  6. This is beautiful! I will have to show it to my children.