The Desert Dreams of Flying to the Moon
Excerpt from People Who Live Inside You: a memoir of flight
by Sharman Apt Russell
I am watching a YouTube video of my father’s death. The film was made by the United States Air Force in 1956 and declassified over fifty years later so I can see it now on my computer screen at home. The heavy B-50 flies alone through the gray-toned sky before releasing the small experimental X-2, designed to glide until its rocket engines power, explode, and push the plane forward. Silently, without music or narration, the X-2 flashes into the distance, sleek with pointed nose and swept-back wings, faster, faster, over three times the speed of sound, faster than any human being has flown before. At the end of this test flight, the X-2 is meant to glide again, landing on a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. My father is the pilot. I stare at the vanishing plane with a frisson of knowledge, holding on to the moment before loss, and wanting to warn: Don’t go so fast today. I play with time, wanting to change time and knowing I would be changing myself, something I cannot really imagine. What would I be without a dead father?
Abruptly, the video shows footage from inside the cockpit, a camera there positioned to view the instrument panel. Here is the back of my father’s head. He is wearing a helmet, which moves jerkily across the screen as the X-2 becomes unstable, rolls, gyrates, spins. No one knew this would happen. That’s why someone had to test the plane. Part of the screen, now half the screen, is a bright white light, irregular shapes of light fraught with meaning like an abstract piece of art. Everything on that canvas is significant, emotional, ineluctable. My father is being thrown about this tiny space filled with light. In seconds, he is jettisoning the cone of the plane which also serves as an escape capsule.
That’s the last I see of him. Rectangles, bright light, the back of a head. For the next twenty minutes of this video, the Air Force forensic team examine the debris on the ground. There are slow pans over pieces of metal, a broken wing, the wreckage of the capsule. We see its dark interior. Thankfully, we don’t see much. Men take photographs. They stand around in groups of three, four, eight. These men are everywhere on the dry lakebed, some wearing white shirts and ties, some in uniforms, some carrying guns. They all seem somber, puzzled, peering at crumpled metal, reaching in, pulling out wires. A boxy helicopter kicks up dust. Other helicopters come and go. The film records the departure of an ambulance-sized vehicle. Perhaps my father’s remains are being taken away. More men trudge through sand, stare, murmur, pick up something.
The Mojave Desert dwarfs this scene of busy hapless men. The filmmakers seemed to want to show that, too, these undulations of hills and mountains, layers of cinnamon-brown and chocolate-brown, sweeps of monotonous light-green creosote. This is the beauty of absence. The unadorned lift of granite and basalt. The empty sky, the empty desert. Only you and I know better. We know how the sky fills with high cirrus clouds, the virga of moisture evaporating as it falls, the great anvils of cumulonimbus. We know the scorpion and grasshopper mouse, the white-winged dove, the owl, the tortoise. We know better because we are in love with this sky and with this land. Even now, from the distance of another century, I can feel the sun’s heat on my arm. I can smell creosote, a mix of turpentine and lemon. I was two years old when my father crashed in the Mojave Desert in the escape capsule of the X-2. I am sixty-five years old now. That span of time is nothing. A rustle of leaves. A flash of light in the corner of your eye.
My father was a Kansas farm boy. The dry lakebed and bony horizon must have seemed as alien to him as the moon. In the end, however, he also grew to love the desert, something I have learned only recently. I always knew, of course, that he loved the sky. In home movies of flying, as a passenger in a cargo transport or in a darling two-seater fighter plane, we see many images of the sky, those high clouds, that cerulean blue. In other movies of family vacations—the blurred quality of 8-millimeter film now digitalized—he pauses briefly at the figures of his wife and two little girls, the wife looking so happy, the little girls like all little girls. Then he moves on to the thunderstorm over Yellowstone National Park, the empty spaces of the Grand Canyon.
We see him most clearly in these choices. We see him being helped into his pressurized flight suit made for high altitudes, uncomfortable and skintight. “You’ve got this hacked, dad,” his chase pilot says in the slang of the day. Two chase planes will follow the experimental flight, monitoring surfaces of the X-2 that the pilot can’t see, offering advice by radio, helping out in an emergency landing. By now, 9 a.m., the little white research plane has been rolled under the belly of the B-50 and fitted into place. The most advanced aircraft of her day, the X-2 is only 44 feet long, with a 34 feet wingspan, already scuffed and nicked from a few bumpy experiences on the dry lakebed, paint peeling on metal contracted by the fuel of liquid oxygen. She looks lived in. She looks friendly. So often, my father has leaned his shoulder against a wing, patted her flank, posed beside her.
Up in the air, at 35,000 feet, in the cockpit of the B-50, we see him say goodbye to the pilot and co-pilot and start the crawl through the tunnel that runs above the plane’s bomb bay. We see him descend a ladder into the cockpit of the X-2, his shoulders wedged into this cramped space. His face is covered by a helmet and oxygen mask so that all we see now are his eyes. We see him buckle his seatbelt. Someone in the B-50 closes the canopy over his head.
There is a long list of things to do—check pump number eleven, open drain switch, retract air scoops—and then the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one, drop away. There are years of training and the possibility they will all end now. Test pilots died at the rate of one a week in the heyday 1950s. The motto of those test pilots was Ad explorata, into the unknown, and in the drumbeat of preparing the X-2 for flight, humming along with the precision and professionalism of the crew, there is always that. The pursuit of revelation. Into the unknown.
As for the people my father left behind, we will fashion our own beauty and meaning from those accumulated moments: kiss your wife goodbye, climb into the cockpit, fly over the Earth faster than any human being has flown before, eject the escape capsule, hit the ground. My sister dreams that he returns to her a few days later. Sitting on her bed that night, he tells her everything will be okay. Okay is what the five-year-old hears. In my crib nearby, I am dreaming, too. Outside our window, the desert is dreaming. In the small trim houses and dormitories and hospital at Edwards Air Force Base, the soldiers and pilots and mechanics and administrators and doctors and nurses and their families are dreaming. All of us, flying and dreaming.
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Sharman Apt Russell is the author of a dozen books translated into nine languages. Her Diary of a Citizen Scientist (Oregon State University Press, 2014) won the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. Her Within Our Grasp: The Revolution to End Childhood Malnutrition (Pantheon Books, 2021) combines her interest in the environment and in hunger. Recent fiction includes the award-winning Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), an eco-sci-fi set in a Paleo-terrific future, and her YA Teresa of the New World (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015), a story of plagues and the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest. See www.sharmanaptrussell.com