My mother had one brother, Philip. Earlier this year, I traveled kitty-corner across the country to sit in a hard plastic folding chair on a jetty at Cape Canaveral Florida staring 14 miles north toward the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A for five and a half hours. Why? Because a tiny capsule containing a few grams of my Uncle Phil’s ashes were attached to a satellite that was part of the payload of the SpaceX falcon heavy rocket scheduled to be launched sometime during the middle of the night.
Uncle Phil had died in 2015. An engineer, he’d worked for NASA for 23 years in several positions. He was the highest ranking official on site in 1986 when the rocket carrying the Challenger crew exploded, killing seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe a New England public school teacher. It had been Uncle Phil’s idea to send a teacher into space, who could then teach and inspire children to become scientists and explorers. It fell to Uncle Phil to spend time with the families of all the astronauts after they had watched their loved ones die high in the sky.
On one visit to us in Seattle, he brought several samples of the tiles being considered to cloak the front of the Space Shuttle to keep it from burning up as it re-entered earth’s atmosphere. We all sat on our living room rug and spread the tiles out, fingering each one while Uncle Phil explained their pros and cons. One of the major requirements was that not only did the tiles need to resist the fierce atmospheric re-entry temperatures, they had to fit on a curved surface and not fall off from the tearing winds re-entry generated. He talked to us children as if we could contribute meaningfully to the decision of which tile was best. I’ve never forgotten the sense of curiosity and comradeship he engendered.
When he retired from NASA in 1988, Uncle Phil continued to be interested in space travel and exploration. He was particularly invested in ideas that allowed rockets come back to earth in shape to be used again. Having his ashes carried into space as part of the SpaceX rocket program, which has pioneered successful recovery and reuse of its boosters and other rocket parts, was especially fitting for Uncle Phil. It’s nice to know he would approve.
The two Falcon heavy boosters returning to their pads.
Uncle Phil, all of space is waiting. Bon Voyage!