FORUM: Joyful Surprise

I was born in the dawn of the space race, 15 months before the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, into an elliptical low Earth orbit. The excitement of the ensuing space race—what it required of and discovered for humanity, influenced the course of my life until today.

My parents said, though I don’t recall, the first occupation which captured my imagination was fire fighter. Interestingly, most of my best friends are or were fire fighters. That was when our family lived in Chicago, which has loved its fire fighters since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The first occupation I recall wanting to pursue was astronaut physician.

Dad was a mathematical statistician working on ABM missile guidance, which required his presence in different places over the development of the project. As a child I lived near laboratories, think tanks, Air Force bases, and missile-testing ranges—before completing my first grade in elementary school. My family traced a nomadic journey stretching from (and intermittently through) Chicago, down the Eastern Seaboard, west to Arizona, across the country again to Virginia near Washington DC, and a year later to Southern California—before I began my eighth grade.

All American astronauts then were military aviators, and today more than 50 graduated from the US Naval Academy. I made it to the last stage of consideration but ultimately wasn’t accepted at Annapolis. I volunteered for USNR/NROTC in the hopes of being able to eventually fly as a RIO. The first time I was dressed in a G-suit, about to fill the back seat of a Skyhawk trainer for my initial jet flight, a “final” test conducted inside a barometric chamber disabled the ability of one of my ears to quickly adjust to pressure changes. Thus I had to abandon my quest to fly into space. Since then, even taking gentle commercial aircraft flights is a tricky proposition, requiring that I have no acute sinus issues.

I’ve never stopped loving flight, or NASA—I found other ways to participate. I became a champion designer, builder and flier of amateur high-power rockets; showed that the Barrowman solution is inaccurate for sub-hypersonic rocket flight; and worked as a contracted statistician on several NASA projects. Currently delayed by the pandemic, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum accepted my offer to receive and display my copy of the first commercial rocket-boosted glider kit designed by an early pioneer in the American rocketry program after WWII.

Fast forward a few decades and I was back in Chicago, blessed with a beautiful daughter. Our house was beneath two approach vectors for O’Hare International Airport, one of the busiest airports in America. Then 9/11 happened, and the skies were devoid of aircraft.

Soon after aircraft began flying again, my wife, our daughter and I flew on an airliner, going on a vacation. Preparing for the flight I spoke at length with our daughter about 9/11, the need for enhanced security, and how, unfortunately, this means we’ll probably never be able to see the inside of the cockpit, or—my life’s dream—to sit in a jet pilot’s chair. I consider jet pilots to be some of the luckiest people on Earth.

We boarded the jet first: I had a medical prescription to perform operations upon, and insert apparatus into my ears—to help them adjust to changes in air pressure. When we entered the bulkhead we intersected the Captain as he was leaving the restroom.

What happened next ranks among the most surprising and happiest moments in my life.

As my wife and I sat in our assigned chairs the Captain let my child wear his cover. She turned to look at me with a happy but bewildered expression, since this is something we both thought would never happen.

Then she got to sit in the Captain’s chair and looked at me with an expression which seemed to convey: “Hey Dad, I just got to do the impossible!”

It was a good lesson for a young one to learn.

And for an old one like I to learn, as well…

Cleared for Takeoff!

Joyful Surprise

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

March 17, 2021

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