HOW MANY OF YOU
Sat enthralled as I did in front of the TV last Thursday, tense. Then suddenly, spontaneously threw your hands up and cheered, like all the scientists in that room full of monitoring stations, that you saw leap up in joy and relief as NASA and our own Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena did the near-impossible, again: blasting off a rocket from Earth to Mars more than six months ago, into the red planet’s atmosphere, easing its speed down from 12,000 mph to 170. And then barely breathing for the “seven minutes of terror” as the module took over its own maneuvers (but the crew on Earth had to wait those seven minutes for the information to beam back), to safely drop the Perseverance rover (about the size of a small car) by parachute onto the Martian surface at a gentle 2 mph. Why, a Martian running alongside could have caught it, in their however-many arms.
Sure, it’s more tense when it’s a manned mission and astronaut lives are at stake, but nearly everyone in that room (and thousands more) had put heart, soul and brains, for years and years, into making this mission a success, and it all depended on those last few minutes. Boom or bust. Will this advance the quest of mankind to expand our knowledge of the universe and our own earthly origins, or wind up a twisted metal wreck scattered over the red planet, a space Uber uber alles, perhaps to be curiously visited and mourned over by the other four rovers we previously sent.
What a business to be in! When something wildly succeeds or fails completely within a matter of minutes, after all that effort. Who are these dedicated, smart and resourceful scientists who gamble big on behalf of our planet?
Yeah, Hoppy, to his friends (and everyone, really), and I’ve been one for more than 40 years. Officially, per his letterhead: Humphrey W. (Hoppy) Price, Mars Program Chief Engineer, JPL. Coordinating three orbiters and two rovers, millions of miles away. A Hoppy, like his childhood nickname namesake, to be reckoned with.
Early baby boomers were steeped in celluloid Western hero Hopalong Cassidy, portrayed by the silver-haired William Boyd. You should look up Boyd’s story in IMDB and Wikipedia; it’s better than a movie script. He was a visionary entrepreneur and an unwavering role model for kids.
You might think that a smart, scientifically gifted young man like our Mr. Price might worry about being taken seriously, still going by a fairly silly nickname of a cowboy movie star. Are you still five? But like his role model, so confident he let the bad guys draw first, and wore a black hat when only villains wore black hats, our Hoppy knew his talents would speak the loudest.
Is when he knew he wanted to be a spaceman. “I stayed home from school to watch the first-ever close up images of Mars from the Mariner 4 space probe. I saw that Mariner 4 was built and operated by JPL, and I decided that was where I wanted to work when I ‘grew up.’” He earned a masters in Nuclear Engineering from UT Austin and moved to San Francisco in 1977 to work in the nuclear power industry. “I managed to snag a job at JPL in 1978 and moved to LA.”
That was around the time I met him. Following through on my own plans to move to LA from New Mexico, I called on a former NM housemate, Brian Muirhead, to get advice about figuring out where to land when I made my move, and he generously offered his roomy home in Pasadena as a home base for exploration.
I met Brian when I was traveling in Europe for a year (the first time, ‘72-’73). He had worked his way around Europe as a motorcycle mechanic, moved up to Mercedes when he returned and moved to NM for school, then up to rocket and module mechanics at JPL.
Was Hoppy. So sweet natured and unassuming that you might not have guessed then that he would rise to such a lofty position. Hoppy knew a helluva lot about music, composed some and was a multi-instrumentalist. He spent a lot of time in their instrument-strewn basement recording studio. His favorite Dr. was Demento. So of course we hit it off.
Hoppy shared a sandwich one sunny day outdoors at the JPL cafeteria with Sandy, an electrical engineer. “She worked on an early prototype of the Sojourner rover, the first ever rover on Mars, and analyzed data from the Voyager spacecraft,” he told me. “She also worked on an instrument that flew on a Russian Mars lander, which unfortunately ended up in the ocean off the coast of South America.” Tough break, Sandy, I hate it when that happens, don’t we all?
Sandy was also a music person and has spent many happy years, until pandemic, singing in her church choir and other professional groups near home. They raised two terrific, now-grown kids and still live close to JPL.
THE NEW ROVER PERSEVERANCE
Dubbed Percy, will stay as long as five years, collecting samples and performing tests. Then JPL will send a lander which will drop Fetch to the surface of Mars, to gather up Percy’s work and rush back to Earth on a European Union orbiter (by 2031) for thorough lab analysis. “The surface where Percy was dropped was very much like Earth was, 3.5 billion years ago, so we think this is a good place to look for signs of life,” said Hoppy.
He told me the Chinese may have a landing soon, but that after several attempts around 50 years ago, the Russians have given up. You’re third class, Putin.
SpaceX? “I think they are doing terrific work.” Hoppy enthused. “The ability to reuse rockets could be major,” he said. When it suddenly dawned on me that SpaceX could be heard as… Space Sex, oh that Elon Musk, I remarked, and Hoppy chimed in, “Well he intentionally named the Tesla models S3XY.” And you thought scientists weren’t cool. Didn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson learn ya nuthin’?
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org