7 minutes / 5 nights of terror

Maybe NASA engineers have just never sent their kids to camp.

I’m among the large following that’s very excited to see NASA’s latest endeavor to inspire our imagination and learn more about our neighborhood and the ingredients that it’s all molded from. Because not all of these are successful, it takes years of planning, months of coasting from a pale blue dot to a bold red one, the entire event has added drama. The launch, the journey, and especially the landing all have to be successful before any of the real work of satisfying our Curiosity can take place.

Landing anything — the jump from a swing set, an airplane, a remote controlled instrument — is tricky. Takeoff is just a matter of giving something enough energy and a sense of direction. Landing is about finesse and precision, making sure your arm is tucked just so and the landing gear is engaged. And then there’s the physics, the vectors, the just-enough-but-not-too-much-thrust. It’s one of those combinations of things that is both game and theoretical physics.

But with a Martian landing, things are further complicated. Dictating or communicating anything that happens on Mars can only happen at the speed of light — something which we generally don’t see as a limitation. Yet, now we’re facing a distance over which it takes entire minutes before we know the present situation. We are always understanding the past, and the farther we peer the deeper our debt to time. For Martian interactions, this means that you have to trust the lander, the planet its landing on, your understanding of both of these, and a non-disclosed faith or hope for some good luck or divine intervention. For Curiosity’s landing on Mars, engineers spoke openly about the “7 minutes of terror,” the time during which the lander would be careening towards the surface, under its own control and without earthly intervention, navigating towards a soft landing, we hope. “All sorts of things can go wrong,” they’ll tell you, candidly.

We just dropped off each of our daughters and each of their respective Girl Scout camps. Anna is off for a backpacking expedition, Grace at “Horse Lovers” camp. We’ve planned for this for months, and when Karyn and I realized the possibility that we could, for the first time in over 12 years, have a week to ourselves, we were practically giddy. But, of course we immediately miss the girls. Let me interject that everything which follows here should be read with the understanding that we are thrilled that the girls get to be out on their own, that they get to experience new things, that they’re in very good hands, that they will never forget this experience and we have actively encouraged them to go. We’ve told them that they’re going to have a great time, that we’re even jealous. This is all the sincere, genuine truth.

And yet: “All sorts of things can go wrong,” we’ll candidly tell you. Five nights, each of them at a remote location with no communication other than these things they call “postcards” that are hand delivered to your home, but generally on the same day that your family is reunited. Personally, I already enjoy imagining Anna on the trail, getting her new boots muddied; Grace brushing the horse that she’s been assigned for the week, or sitting atop in her blue helmet and tinted glasses and broad grin. Of course that’s what’s happening, in addition to late nights in a tent with strange noises outside, the other campers with their idiosyncrasies, the sunburns and bug bites — the things that all make us stronger in the end. And, of course, we can imagine all of the other things.

Five nights of terror. NASA engineers are in the dark for 7 minutes, and I know it’s excruciating. But in the amount of time set aside for an extended commercial, they are given relief. High res images stream towards them to give them the okay that their baby is okay.

Last night we saw the news blurb that there was a wildfire in a location that was only vaguely familiar to us. I pretended like I wasn’t worried. Karyn immediately asked where that place was. I told her roughly where I thought it was (which, turned out to be correct) and that it was nowhere near where either daughter was. She was asking me to check on the map, but she didn’t have to. I was already looking it up on my phone. I confirmed it was far away.

“On the other side of I-15, right?” she double checked.

“Yes, an on the other side of Utah Lake. And it would have to burn through all of Orem, too, so depending on what you think of Orem it would have some plusses and minuses.”

NASA engineers don’t get to have these kinds of conversations. They could mostly just hold their breath and wait. We get to stir with our own imaginations and the possibilities. I know, it’s completely different. But, really: “Terror”? I don’t think so. Try raising kids, watch them grow up, strap on some hiking boots or a riding helmet and then walk away into the woods. Then you’ll know what terror, and love, and pride, and longing, and worry, and delight, and mostly love, all rolled up together, feels like.


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