Rocket Woman in Love

It was during the fourth viewgraph, the one that showed the flight trajectory, that I first heard your voice. I was facing the screen, tracing the parabolic arc of the payload with the laser pointer, when I heard from the back of the room, Why did the probe fail to reach orbit? I replied, without turning around, Catastrophic failure of the third stage. I was afraid to turn around; I was afraid that our eyes would meet, phase-lock, and I would instead reply, Because the desire was not strong enough.

But I knew that you would come up to ask me again after the talk. I do not believe in fate, as such, but I work in a world where the inevitable forces that act between bodies determine their paths, where the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics does not sully the clarity of the necessary outcome. The initial conditions were set; I knew you would come to me.

You were a graduate student: tall, young, and polite. You praised my work and said that you referred extensively to my articles in your first publication (my mischievous mind punned at first cite ). We spoke of boundary layers and shock waves. Of friction loss and heating. Of the implications of time-irreversible quantities. I asked you out to dinner.

* * *

Men usually have confused preconceived notions about me. A female rocket scientist: the ultimate case of penis envy. No, wait--she wants to have power over the phallus. Maybe she was abused by her father. Or perhaps she just wants to be a man.

But you. You were different. You immediately intuited that it was not a matter of power, of control. That it had to do with freedom. Liberation from the gravity that reclaims every pebble thrown and bends our spirits toward the ground, which keeps us grinding round and round the same star, in the same hollow in space, keeping us tied to the lowest common denominator, slowing the expansion of the universe. I dream of leaving one day, blasting off at escape velocity, slingshotting away from the ecliptic plane, purely inertial, force-free.

As we walked down by the piers after dinner, you suddenly took me in your arms and tossed me with all your strength into the night sky. For a moment I saw the stars wheeling about me, a sparse world against my insignificance. As you caught me in your arms, I glimpsed in your dark eyes a curious mixture of surprise and sadness, as if you had half-expected me not to come down, as if you were foreseeing my departure.

* * *

Rockets are still as much an art as a science. Even a small, venerable, solid-fuel motor will, on occasion, explode upon ignition, the shrapnel from the engine casing accelerating outward, lodging themselves in the concrete blocks of the bunker, punching through the corrugated metal walls of the hangar, skidding and sparking across the barren asphalt landscape of the launch area. Sometimes the explosion will ignite the second stage and the fin-less payload will execute several tight loops, all thrust and no control, a fox chasing its tail on fire, before careering off toward the horizon to land eventually, perhaps, in a brackish swamp where it will sink, a failure, a curious artifact for future archeologists.

A rocket engine is a controlled bomb. And a bomb's greatest desire is to fulfill the second law of thermodynamics as quickly as possible. It's our job to channel this adolescent urge for instant gratification into a more sustained and directionally focused transition to lower energy states and increased entropy. Poor little bomb. Denied its millisecond of luminous and clamorous glory.

Of course, the analogies to sex are inevitable. My former lovers either assiduously ignored that certain words spoken in my presence had gossamer threads attached that tugged provocatively in different directions, or they made the threadbare, barefaced pun whenever possible. But again, you were different. Your mind moved from moment to moment, where each word was defined only in its context, hermetically sealed for you and me. For you, a nose cone was a nose cone was a nose cone. It's surprising you had survived so long in this world. In another place, another time, you would have ended as a self-immolating monk.

* * *

And the other inevitable: The question: Is a rocket launch better than sex?

* * *

The first time we made love. Two weeks after the conference you came to see me. My office. A cramped little rectangular space with no exposed wall space--every side lined from floor to ceiling with journals and books. File cabinets (which I had painted azure to brighten the space) glutted with proposals, publication manuscripts, reviews, and reports. The steady hum of the tape drive attached to my workstation. A framed photo of Challenger taking off on its final journey. You locked the door behind you. Following the line-of-sight path between our bodies, we accelerated and met in an inelastic collision on top of the desk, immediately maneuvering to maximize the contact area.

Afterwards I was mortified to find several exam papers, which I had neglected to clear off my desk in the urgency of the moment, soaked with the effluence of our effusion. I quickly wiped them off with the handiest piece of cloth (my underwear) and sprinkled them with a perfume to disguise the scent.

* * *

We met as often as our bi-coastal separation would allow. I discovered that desire does not fall off with the square of the distance, neither does it decay exponentially with time. Longing across longitudes. Your absence undermining the horizon. I slid my work schedule around the clock so I could call you during waking hours.

I thought myself the luckiest woman in the world. Work that I loved, a man that I loved who wished me absolute freedom. I even believed that the tension-and-release cycle of anticipation and fulfillment forced by our separation was the ideal model for sustaining the wonder and gratitude that flowed between us. But eventually, perhaps, we would move on to another phase. Home ownership and cohabitation. Offspring with IQs in the distant outlier of the statistical distribution. A mini-van, even. Or a Volvo station wagon.

* * *

One night I dreamed that I had wings of kevlar and feathers made of mylar. I flew up through the atmosphere and turned around to gaze in awe at the blue marble of our planet. As I headed on toward the sun I could feel the solar wind caress and heat my face, and my body began to glow and streams of spark petals were coming off my wings.

Then a comet suddenly blew right past me, sending fireflies of hot dusty plasma into my burning eyes. Then I saw you. You were riding the comet, your back straight as a seasoned cowboy, heading toward the sun. I cried out and tried to beat my wings faster, but they were unresponsive, as if space had turned into a vast, viscous fluid, and I was wallowing in its quagmire of despair.

* * *

At times I worried that I was nearly ten years older than you. That you might not love me in a decade when I'd turned the corner of irreversibility (entropy is especially cruel to the skin) while you were just beginning to fill out in anticipation of the respectable middle-age male paunch. My body is not the proverbially shapeless one of a librarian--men are not solely attracted to me for my beautiful brain. I was blessed with the right genes for the paradigm of female physical beauty that currently prevails in our society, and I've been careful to preserve my advantages as much as possible. But the human body follows, at best, a parabola--you reach a peak, then you start to fall. Boltzmann's Arrow of Time hung over my proud body like a slipping Sword of Damocles--of course, it kills you in the end, but how much damage will it do and how quickly?

I let slip these fears to you while we drifted in my hot air balloon. The sinking sun's rays filtered to a bitter orange by the tangential atmospheric path, the lightly turbulent winds putting a chill to my shoulders.

You were silent for a while. Then you bent over and kissed my eyes, first the self-conscious crow's feet in the corners, then my closed eyelids, slowly, deliberately. I watched as the pressure from your lips conjured golden Rorschach flowers against the deep purple background, blossoming, then fading as the heat from your mouth also receded. I love you now, and it is always now, you said. My vain fears were misplaced; it never occurred to me that your time-line might run out before mine.

* * *

On your last trip to see me, you did not even make it out of town. The 737 lost power on both engines while climbing at 2500 feet. The pilots didn't have a chance. The stunned silence in the black box recording, then the despairing expletive. The aircraft suddenly ceasing to be a flying object as it slowed to stall speed, then plunging toward terminal velocity, as airworthy as a penny tossed from the top of the Empire State Building.

But miraculously your body was recovered unscathed, as if death overcame you under calmer circumstances: reading the latest issue of Advances in Space Research, listening to Holst in your favorite chair, solving time-independent partial differential equations, playing with your cat, Pynchon, an afternoon nap with your head in my lap.

* * *

Now as I replace the final bolts on this rocket payload, I think about our first night together when you tossed me up into the night sky. Your desire and mine. Now it's your turn. I've taken out 72 kg of ballast for you. Dead weight. Laugh, my love, I made a joke.

Soon my desire, expressed through this three-stage rocket motor, will propel you away from me. When you reach orbital altitude, both you and the remote sensing satellite will commence the first of your numerous trips around the Earth, in equilibrium, at last, with the gravity that took your life. Your trajectory is programmed on my computer so that every night I will know exactly when to step out into the darkness and crane my neck skyward where you will be arcing across the constellations, a defiant Icarus blazing in the sunlight, returning again and again to me.


February 1995

Return to fiction list. Copyright 1995, John Nagamichi Cho