After several delays (some pre-COVID, some due to it), last weekend I finally visited my son Anselm in Pittsburgh. We’ve been cautious about masking indoors when around others, and he and his delightful partner Claire both are working from home and have been pretty isolated. We’d not seen each other since December, and felt we could responsibly visit. It was a much-needed tonic. And such a satisfying and special wonder to experience your kids (or any young folks in our lives) growing in knowledge and other ways that surpass you.
Fresh out of college four years ago Selm was selectively applying to companies in the field he wanted to pursue. For about three months post graduation, he had many rejections and just a couple intereviews. With his hard-earned mechanical engineering degree in hand, he was making near minimum wage, setting up for events at the VT conference center! WE (his mom, stepdad, & I) were reaching the limits of our patience, and about to nudge him toward taking ANY position he could find in ANY field. But his persistence paid off in mid-August when he was offered a position working for what was then a 12-person aerospace start-up, called Astrobotic. The founders had the presumptuous vision to compete for private contracts building a people-less lunar landing module. Since then, they’ve secured two major NASA contracts, and are now partnering with ULA, a major defense department rocket contractor, and the Astrobotic “team” in Pittsburgh has mushroomed to over 100 employees.
I was able to tour the expansive new facility they have underway. I actually got to see and put my hands on the physical final prototype that he and a small cluster of workmates have been designing, calculating, reconfiguring, adapting, and working their tails off on, for nearly four years. After thorough vetting and testing with NASA’s guidance and approval, it’s slated to launch and land on the moon in about two years. I still can hardly believe it. (Sorry I can’t share any proprietary photos.) The complexity and planning of each strut, bolt and nut (material, strength, placement, weight, etc) and the domino effect of each tiny change to the crucial dynamic of the whole is brain-boggling, especially to my poetically-oriented mind. Surprisingly, they’re literally (very carefully, and with some super cool, sophisticated tools—plus some pretty simple ones) mostly putting this prototype together by hand. Of course along with an incredible amount of cohesive team work and planning: in-house, with outside contractors, manufacturers, and other agencies. I am so very happy for him, and feel so fortunate to vicariously share in his exciting journey.
I’d begun considering when might be best to journey on a night float a few weeks ago. MY “extensive” planning consisted of watching for a full moon, warm weather, and a cloudless night sky. Even these simple requirements don’t coalesce often to allow a smooth launch and excursion! I added a headlamp to my night voyaging paraphernalia, which is all of: the tube, a ziplock bag to store a dry shirt, and my iPhone and waterproof case. Four vinyl tubes and dozens of patches on them last year taught me that cheap tubes aren’t worth buying. It ain’t rocket science but eventually I learned to invest in “river stone approved” rubber tubes with stout covers.
With the stunning clear light of the moon, I needed no headlamp beyond walking my alley. The 90 degree days have made the water feel like a soothing bath. The float was worth the wait. You can kind of sense it will be when you put in and the only sounds (besides random distant fireworks—it was July 3) are water rippling against roots and rocks, leaves fluttering, and the occasional sploosh of a fish. Very soon into the mysterious yet serene panorama, I was treated to an incredible cinematic multi-sensory experience! My body felt weightless slowly drifting along in the glassy onyx/umber water, my toes and fingers were idly soaking in temps that matched the air, there were brightly shining slivers of silver white moonlight (a visual echo of the sun on the other side of the planet) marking where unseen rocks crested the river’s surface. The river’s color deepened toward black along the tree-lined banks. Beside the moon’s orb, even in amid the dim city glow, many stars shown through. Venus was clearly visible near the eastern horizon. As my eyes adjusted to the lack of electric light, I was granted a private, silent fireworks display of thousands upon thousands of fireflies emerging from high in the trees, their twinkling glows set-off perfectly by the deep mossy boughs and slight hills along the banks.
I gazed at the moon the whole float, and of course I thought of Anselm. When we said good bye in Pittsburgh last weekend, perhaps spurred a bit from being deprived of hugs and contact, and all the cumulative emotions and angst of this bizarre moment we’re all in together, I teared up a bit, and noticed he did too. On the short walk home following the float, I recalled a book my mentor and friend Charlie Brouwer mentioned decades ago, The Starship and the Canoe, about a slightly similar father/son pairing. I smiled about Anselm and my parallel journeys, together and apart, inward and outward, and my heart swelled. Life doesn’t get better.