Author : Glenn Blakeslee
He became part of the Grand Flyby Mission midway through the third decade of his life, as a junior designer on the Flight Data Subsystem team.
He found himself at the leading edge of spacecraft design, and worked with the members of his team to build a robust device capable of data-handling functions for a long-term project.
He went to the Cape for the liftoff, was amazed to see the spacecraft climb on a column of flame. He met a girl on a Florida beach, and a year later married her.
The next years were heady times, as the spacecraft arrowed its way to the outer planets: Jupiter and her moons were imaged, and Saturn and her rings fell to the instruments aboard the spacecraft. He lived as fast as the data coming in, speeding the crowding freeways of LA in his sports car and drinking more than usual. He had an affair, which his wife did not discover.
The spacecraft’s mission was extended, and he found himself no longer a junior engineer but in charge of a team. The FDS was his baby, he the hands-down expert. The spacecraft was the first to perform a flyby of Uranus, and the first to photograph Neptune.
In the fifth decade of his life, he found himself settling down. His fast car had long ago been traded for a family-style sedan. He spent hours at work designing methods for upgrading the spacecraft, and when he and his team succeeded the job of the spacecraft changed again, to a long-duration interstellar mission. His wife learned of his dalliance a decade earlier and, bored and facing an empty nest, divorced him.
Some of the instruments on the spacecraft —those with no use in the sparser stretches of the solar system— were shut down, and though the incoming data never ceased it did slow. He found his staff reduced, which was expected. He found his life had settled into a slow rhythm —collecting data from the far-off spacecraft, sending updates across the expanse, sleeping and eating.
One year after the spacecraft crossed the termination shock —the inexorable slowing of the solar wind— he suffered a heart attack. He took time off but kept charge of his small team. With doctors orders he was back on the job, but charged with shutting down two more of the spacecraft’s systems. Three years later he retired.
He kept a firm hand on the spacecraft’s systems as a part-time consultant. With only two instruments still collecting data, the mission had collapsed to a terminal phase. They held a party when the spacecraft entered heliopause, and it reminded him of the good old days, when the spacecraft was running fast through the outer planets and the data stream held discovery after discovery. Now past the edge of the solar system, the spacecraft would coast quietly forever.
It became apparent to him that he and the spacecraft had led parallel lives, from a fast and fiery launch to a slow cold end.
Late in his eighth decade he found that his time in the sun had created a defect in his skin which, in the darkness and solitude of his late age, would probably end his life. So, too, the spacecraft: its time in the sun had ended, the reactors that powered it all but discharged. But it sped on, and so might he.
The rapid telemetry of his heart would slow, the data stream of his brain would trickle to a stop —but he knew, somehow, that he and the spacecraft would ride together, into the light of lesser suns.
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