Boy In Wonderland
There’s my son Matthew, 13, standing at what is for him the center of the universe: NASA’s Deep Space Command Central, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Matt and I spent most of today at JPL, given a special tour by my old friend Keith Comeaux, who was the Director of Flight Operations for the Mars Curiosity Rover mission. That is, he was the captain of the ship that sailed across the solar system and landed the Rover safely on Mars. I gained a massive pile of cool points with Matt for even knowing Keith Comeaux. Today, thanks to the generosity of Keith and his colleagues at JPL, several of home met with Matthew, answered his questions, and gave him advice, my son had the trip of a lifetime.
Those scientists cannot possibly imagine what they did for that boy today. Matt has loved space for a long, long time. When he was three, he told his mother and me to sit down on the kitchen floor, and he took apart a three-stage Saturn rocket, explaining to us how it worked. We thought it was … cute. He dropped space for a while, but went back to it two or three years ago, and is now is a passionate autodidact.
I warned Keith that Matt is not a typical space geek, that he has read deeply about the engineering of this stuff, and the history of both manned and unmanned space exploration. Still, I could tell that Keith was startled by this boy’s passion and depth of knowledge. Hell, I live with him, and I was shocked. It was like I wasn’t there — and I say that in a good way. He bonded right away with Keith, and off they went. I couldn’t follow their conversation. Matt and the scientist in charge of overseeing Curiosity’s mining operation got into an intense back-and-forth as Matt questioned him about how the drill was made, how it works, etc. That kind of thing, all day. Keith must be exhausted from having to answer all his questions, and great questions they were, too.
Here’s a question from me: Where were you when Curiosity landed? Here’s where Keith Comeaux was; he’s the guy jumping up and down pumping the air:
Matthew was at home in St. Francisville watching all this on TV. This morning, he was in that very room you see on the video, with Keith and three other scientists who were also there that night. They spent 20 minutes talking to them about their own path to JPL, and how they became scientists. They all said what you would expect — study hard, especially math and physics; focus on universities that train students for space careers at the top of the field; strive to get internships that help you build connections within the industry. But they all said that luck plays a role too. One of them, Miguel San Martin, an immigrant from Argentina, told Matt that he has already had a huge stroke of luck by being born in the United States of America. This is a country, Dr. San Martin said, where it really is possible for someone to go far in their field based on their capabilities and hard work. “Not every society in the world is like that,” he said.
Among other things, Matt got to see the Mars Yard, where a Curiosity “stunt double” helps scientists and engineers figure out what the real-life Curiosity can do, and can be made to do better. He learned that JPL scientists are working on Rovers capable of rolling upside down without falling, to make exploring Mars caves possible. And he got to see the “clean room” where JPL staff was busy assembling its SMAP satellite for launch in 2014.
Here’s what I saw today: my son as I’ve never beheld him before. I texted Julie several times during the visit, telling her that she wouldn’t believe how deeply and naturally Matt was into the groove here at JPL. I have never seen him so engaged, so intense, so at ease with himself, so … satisfied. It’s like he defied gravity for the first time ever. At one point, he leaned over and said to me, “I love it! I can talk to them, and they understand what I’m talking about!” Nobody else in his life does. It’s not that we don’t care about what Matt loves, but that we aren’t capable of sharing his degree of interest and knowledge, much less discussing it at his level. Today, though, he was with his people, in his place — and man, it was a glorious thing to witness. I told Keith privately, “I think you and I saw the birth of a vocation today.” I texted Julie to say, “Today really brought it home to me that he’s not ours.” Sad, but beautiful, and I mean that.
As I write this, we’re back in the hotel, and Matt, worn out from the greatest day of his life, is sound asleep. I wonder what he’s dreaming of.
Thank you, Keith Comeaux. Thank you, JPL. Thank you, NASA. You’ll never, ever know…
UPDATE: Matthew’s kindergarten teacher said yesterday that she remembers him coming in and talking about what he had read in the NYTimes Science section that morning. I had forgotten that he used to do that. He also used to talk all the time in the spring semester of his kindergarten year about the Mars Spirit Rover. I had forgotten about that too. His trajectory toward JPL started almost 10 years ago. Man. That early. Matt spent his 11th birthday in Oxford with me, at a Templeton Foundation event that I attended to interview scientists as part of my Foundation job. I knew that Matt loved science, and England, and thought he would enjoy meeting scientists. Boy, did he; Vlatko Vedral , the quantum physicist whose specialty is quantum information theory, was a favorite of his. On his birthday morning, he sat at a cafeteria table across from Sir John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist, Anglican priest, and a dear, dear man. Sir John congratulated Matt on reaching the ripe old age of 11. I had forgotten about this as well. That kid has been extraordinarily blessed in his opportunities to meet and talk with scientists.