A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

To the Moon, Five Years Later

I first published this five years ago today. It's all still true. -- MEB

My father was a rocket scientist. Well, OK, not precisely. More specifically he was a rocket engineer. Or, more precisely still, he was an engineer who worked on the computers that went into space and navigated the rockets. He worked on the Saturn V that lifted Apollo astronauts toward the moon, he worked on the Lunar Module, which touched down on the moon, he worked on the Lunar Rover, which drove astronauts around on the moon. All of this before he was 30 years old.

I never remember him talking about it at all, talking about what it was like to send men to the moon, to be involved in such a tremendous adventure, but, ten years ago, in the little farming town on the edge of the Mississippi River where he grew up, I had a conversation with one of his friends from those days, and he told me that they all felt like they had lived in a magical time. After the Apollo missions ended, they all later worked on the Space Station and more mundane things like the ticket-taker on the BART trains that I used to take when I was a graduate student living on the San Francisco Bay. But nothing in their lives was ever quite like a being a bunch of thirty-year-old kids living in northern Alabama having the blind optimism to think that if there was a rocket being built they knew enough to put the computers together to make those rockets bring people to the moon. And back. And then actually doing it.

I wish I could ask him about it, but that opportunity is a decade gone.

Being the mid nineteen seventies, he had a marriage and he had three children – me, my older brother Andy, my younger sister Cammy – all before he turned 30, and we all lived in what now seems to me like a huge house in northern Alabama. Being the mid nineteen seventies, the marriage didn’t last. He moved to an apartment across town, then to Maryland, then to North Carolina, then to Houston, and finally, for his last few weeks, back to North Carolina to stay in the house of my sister.

In those last few weeks my brother and I were there at my sister’s house, too. I was in the middle of my third year of being a professor at Caltech and I was still trying to get on my feet. But, that quarter, I simply canceled my class midway through and gave everyone in attendance an “A.” Oddly, I had no complaints. I then flew across the country to meet my father and my sister and soon my brother and we all stayed in North Carolina for a while.

It was too late then to say much. He was mostly groggy from the pain medication. But we talked some about what was happening in all of our lives. Though he never would say such a thing directly, I think he was proud that I done well enough at school to land a job being a professor at Caltech. I remember complaining about some of the more mundane aspects of the job to him and having him softly glare back and whisper: “do you know how lucky you are?”

I told him about a new project I was starting that I was quite excited about. We had just started using an old telescope at Palomar Observatory to make repeated wide-field observations of the night sky in search of particularly large objects in the outer solar system. I told him that I was certain there would be things larger than Pluto out there to see and that I really hoped to be the one to find them. He always liked long-term plans and was happy to see that I finally seemed to have one. “But what if there isn’t anything out there?” he asked, in his always not-quite-so-encouraging way. There will be, I said. I’m sure there will be.

We talked about the long term relationship I was in that, though I didn’t know it at the time, was within a month of finally falling apart. I told him why the relationship was hard and not going so well. I remember perhaps the only words of relationship advice he ever gave me: “There shouldn’t be any fighting. Find someone you don’t fight with.” Though the words resonated with me, my father’s accumulated lifetime credibility in this realm was not high. So I filed the advice away.

He died a few days later. It was ten years ago today.

I’ve missed not having a father for the past decade. I feel we were still, that late in both of our lives, getting to know and understand each other, something we had never had much of an opportunity to do when I was younger.

But, today, I am thinking of the things that I wish I had the opportunity to show him over the past decade. I don’t have much in the way of spiritual beliefs about any afterlife, but, if there is one, and the deceased person can pick his form of communication with the corporeal world, I am pretty sure that my father would pick the web. When he first got cancer nearly 20 years ago he immediately took to the then-new internet as a means of educating himself and everyone else about everything to do with the cancer, the treatments, the options. It’s the sort of thing that everyone does routinely these days, but, back then, it was still quite novel. So if he’s out there anywhere, I like to think of him hooked in through some vast astral server. So this is for him, vial HTML, which he first introduced me to:

Dad –
A lot has happened in the past decade that I think you’d have been proud to have heard about, but there are three that I really wish I could share with you.

Remember that project I told you about ten years ago? The one that started looking over vast swaths of sky for things that moved? The one where I thought I would find another planet? Well, it took a few years before it began paying off, but it has been a pretty spectacular ride. There were indeed things out there to be found. One – so far – was even bigger than Pluto. I wouldn’t have guessed at the time, but all of it caused a big shakeout in the solar system leading to the new decision to recognize only 8 planets. That’s a pretty big change from your lifetime, where Pluto was a planet when you were born and Pluto was a planet when you died. I think you would have enjoyed watching the changes happen. And I sort of suspect that, though you would never actually say it directly to me, you would be somewhat proud of me. I’m sorry you weren’t around to see it.

Some other big news of the past decade: you were right about relationships and fighting, I think. Who would have guessed that? It took me another four years after that conversation, but I did find that person you were trying to guide me towards. I got married to Diane six years ago. I know that you were perhaps always convinced that no one was ever good enough for one of your kids, but, I have to admit, I think you would be charmed. I look at the picture that was taken on our wedding day sometimes, the one that has Diane and me and my brother and his wife and my sister and her husband and their two kids and my mother and my step-father and I wish that you were in the picture too. It would have been a bit awkward, these extended family things always were, but the awkwardness would have been better than the empty spot that I now see every time I see that picture.

There’s one more thing I wish I could show you. Her name is Lilah, and she is a 3 ½ year old bundle of silliness, stubbornness, curiousness, sweetness, and talkativeness. It is part of the mythology from my childhood that you were not particularly pleased about having that third child, but when it turned out to be a baby girl you pretty quickly got over your misgivings. I think you would like Lilah, and I think it would be pretty hard for you to hide. She asks about you sometimes. She asked about you this morning, even. “But Daddy, who was your daddy?” and I tell her about you. “Why did he die?” she asks. I explain about being sick, about having cancer. She understands a little, but, clearly, only a little. “Do you get another daddy when yours dies?” No Lilah. You never do. You never, ever, do.

What Lilah doesn’t yet know is that you don’t want another daddy when yours dies. You just want yours back. And when you realize that that is never going to happen, you at least want a chance to tell him a few things. And you hope that he has some chance of listening in, at least every ten years or so.


  1. Hi Mike, Thanks for sharing your memories, anecdotes, and reminiscences. You have a lot of your father in you but I believe you are more successful in that you have learned from your father what was and is important in your life and your family's.

    Best Wishes,

  2. Thanks for sharing this. And you're right. Your dad would be proud

  3. Hello Michael,
    I knew your Father in Huntsville, and he would be so proud of you. This posting is beautiful. Thanks so much. Hard to believe its been 10 years.

  4. My goodness. This just made me cry. You are an artist with words.

  5. Hi, Mike :0

    "Everybody dies. It's how you lived that counts." - Conan the Barbarian.

    You sure are a good writer. Wish I could do that.

  6. Thank you for this touching story and sage words. Maybe Lilah will treasure every moment she has with her daddy when she is able to understand what it means to be gone forever.

    Even planets, stars and galaxies die; nothing is forever.

    Perhaps you can make it a family tradition when the Moon is full, to gaze upon it and recite a poem or something that is special in honor of your pop. The Moon will then become a symbol of joy and harmony that will make your family appreciate loved ones (past and present) and make the universe a better place.

    May your dad rest in peace among the heavens.

  7. Prof. Brown,

    Thanks a lot for sharing your personal history. When you mentioned that your father has worked with the computers on board of the Apollo spacecraft, I recalled a lecture I took about twenty-five years ago, during my graduate times. I enrolled in a class on database management systems (I have a PhD in Biological Sciences, but I have always had a strong interest in information technology and astronomy, so I took a few IT courses during graduation) and one day the instructor, lecturing about the then cutting-edge 'relational database model' said: "Codd published this model in 1970 but it took almost two decades before it got commercially adopted. *We got to the Moon without even knowing the relational database model -- and the Apollo computers worked quite well*". Well, I never forgot these words (and later came to learn that the Apollo project used PL/I as its main programming language, which today looks quite odd but that fact is that they worked, and *quite well* -- just compare the success of Apollo computers with the mess caused by programming errors which caused the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999). To sum up: in a sense, I have perhaps got an indirect glimpse of your father's work via that database instructor comment.

    Best wishes,

  8. Wow, Prof. Brown, what a touching and meaningful story! The last three sentences say exactly the way I feel. My Dad has been gone for 14 years now and I wish I could tell him many things and especially to discuss many of the things going on in the world today - your work being one of those things.

    All the best to you and your family.

  9. What a beautiful and poignant remembrance. I was a little like your father as an engineer in the early, hectic, and exciting days of the early space efforts. Although my family has remained intact, I did neglect my father and I wish I could talk with him today. Fortunately my family has produced a beautiful and smart granddaughter, Samantha, and she might very well be studying under you at Caltech. I do hope one day she will remember me with the warmth and sensitivity that you have expressed about your early family life..

    Donald Trumbo