To infinity (and beyond): Texas part 5

The future of humanity is being built in McGregor, Texas. In the midst of soybean fields and swaying meadows, several thousand of the brightest scientific minds — idealistic engineers fresh out of college, semi-retired military technicians, all bearing the signature “X” across baseball caps and t-shirts as a badge of honor — are working tirelessly towards a single goal: to place bootsoles upon the red silt of Mars, explore distant galaxies, and bring the terrestrial vision born in this remote corner of central Texas to new celestial frontiers.

We careen down the death rivers that are Texas highways north through slow swells of land, undulating in that nearly imperceptible way that lakes do when the wind kisses their surface. Broken by a copse of trees here, a wending creek bed full of rocks and rattlesnakes there — around bends and blind curves, past billboards advertising Jesus and car dealerships we go. I keep my eyes peeled for Branch Davidians preaching apocalypse on the side of the road (I heard about them on TV); I scan for FBI helicopters and smoke on the horizon — nothing but cow pastures and the fence posts, lonely intersections with signs pointing towards elsewheres.

Photo by Max Hunt

We’re going to visit Charise’s high-school friend Hunter, a software engineer who builds the systems that help to design, sequence, test and maintain rocketships. After arriving at the wrong gate to the SpaceX facility, a friendly security guard leads us down dusty dirt roads to a lonely outpost, where another friendly man in a security uniform (really, the nicest security guards I’ve ever come across, these guys) issues us two visitor passes and gently instructs us NOT to take pictures of anything. It’s the first sign that something more is going on behind the chain link fences than meets the eye.

Hunter greets us with a big hug in the visitor parking lot and ushers us into his car. A stout man, built like a rugby player, with eyes so blue it’s hard to meet their gaze without falling in love, he cheerfully launches into “tour guide” mode, distilling the complex series of tests, measurements, calculations, additional testing, delays, precision craftwork, and crossed fingers that go into the construction of vessels capable of not only breaking through the blue haze of earth’s atmosphere, but catapulting astronauts off into the great beyond, turning around, and landing back on their launch pads, into terms two hippie-poet types can (almost) understand.

Hunter takes us through halls lined with photographs — several taken by him — displaying the company’s past endeavors in fiery lift-offs and streaks across the sky. Entering one large facility, we come face to face with the biggest soda can I’ve ever seen. Packed full with fuel, the series of engines and igniters will send the actual space capsule hurdling up into the air at velocities the lay person, such as myself, can scarcely conceive of. He shows us the various test pads, where rockets are run through the ringer to check their durability and fine-tune the mechinisms before they are sent off to the Texas coast for their debut.

Charise and I at SpaceX. Photo by Hunter.

Throughout our tour, we’re greeted by several employees — amiable characters from all corners of the country, all walks of life, united under the high Texas sun for the common purpose of visionary progress. It’s a high-minded ideal, one that requires an optimism that can withstand almost as much pressure as a rocket hurtling through the ozone, and an extraordinary amount of patience.

The day we arrive, SpaceX is scheduled to help launch the new NASA TESS satellite, with which the agency hopes to spy out habitable planets millions of light years away. After several delays, the mission is scrapped for the day, due to high winds at the launch site, which we watch from a remote camera. It’s almost ironic that, despite the incredible amount of calculations, mathematics formulas, and state of the art technology — despite the bold visions and millions of dollars and man hours that go into crafting these starships for a brighter tomorrow — our endeavors can still be so easily thwarted by nature. It’s humbling, and perhaps a little scary.

Following our tour (the friendly guards wave as we drive past their post at the gate), we join Hunter’s wife, Laura, and their baby daughter, Aster, at a local BBQ joint for lunch. Country music plays from the speakers above our picnic table, as Charise talks motherhood with Laura, a physicist herself, who teaches at a local community college.

Hunter, Charise, me, and Hunter’s beautiful baby girl. Photo by Laura

Next door to the BBQ joint, Hunter says you can still buy George W. Bush memorabilia. W’s ranch in Crawford is only a few miles away; apparently he’s a somewhat regular patron of the place. A few tables down, several other young guys decked out in SpaceX talk over pulled pork sandwiches. The juxtaposition of highly-skilled, highly technical tomorrows with the laid-back, laconic atmosphere of the town is striking. Worlds are subtly colliding — the rancher and the rocket scientist; Ph.Ds and GEDs — intermingling in the strange dance of past and potential, across the sawdust floor of the present.

Hunter bounces his daughter on his knee and she coos delightedly. The child looks more like him, more like Laura depending on where the light falls on her face, but she has inherited her father’s painfully blue eyes. Taking her into my arms for a second, she looks up at me: there’s a question in her gaze, but I’m not entirely sure what she’s asking. It could be as simple as “Who are you? Where are we going?” or it could be as complex as the layers of computer systems her father builds to build the rockets that will take her generation farther than my own can imagine.

Here we are, past, present, and future, lounging over lunch in the Texas afternoon sun. A wasp skirts the edge of my finger, casting about for frontiers of its own, maybe, and the child’s eyes follow it as it lifts off into the wild blue yonder.

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