Plumes of smoke erupted under the rocket’s thrusters as it rose from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, into the clear blue Florida sky. Leaving the Earth’s atmosphere felt to Scott MacLeod like the peak of an enormous swing. The future of the Cold War and the fate of a nation rode on this rocket, the Saturn V, the same rocket that in 1969 would blast man to the moon. This launch was a suborbital test, making Scott only a “test astronaut.”
Going to the moon was his deepest desire. Although he understood the importance of his contributions to the Space Race, like testing the famous “Eagle” lunar module, he still harbored a friendly jealousy for those astronauts whose “stuff” was more “right” than his. Deeper still was the grief that resonated from the recent death of his wife, who had succumbed to cancer the previous year.
Then in 1970, when NASA cancelled its final planned lunar missions, Apollo Missions 18, 19, and 20, Scott felt very lucky to have been part of the Apollo Program, but he knew he might never walk on the moon. Still, Scott stuck around with NASA, because the possibility of another exciting mission glimmered on the horizon.
Talk of a mission to Mars was floating around the Cape, and Scott wanted in. Scientists believed that such a mission would amount to a two-year round trip: eleven months to arrive on Mars, a month or so on the surface, and eleven months back, according to Scott. NASA’s scientists determined that a minimum of five crewmembers would have to man the potential Mars mission. “If you put one man in a spacecraft, he’s going to go crazy,” Scott explains. NASA then expected to launch the mission around the year 2000, when Scott would be 74. He doubted he’d be able to be one of the crewmembers, but if NASA was putting men on Mars, nothing was impossible.
The forward-thinking space administration knew that female astronauts would be part of that equation. Though cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, nine years before the last Apollo mission, Sally Ride, the first American woman to enter space, would not do so until 1983, a full 20 years after Tereshkova. Scott and the other scientists batting around the Mars mission idea wondered how women might react in dangerous situations they couldn’t escape from. Little did Scott know: 13 women had trained to become Mercury astronauts in the early 1960s. The Mercury 13, as these women were called, passed the same tests Scott did in his quest to become an astronaut. Like Scott, they were barred from space, but unlike Scott, they couldn’t blame chance. Many of these women had actually scored higher than he did. It was NASA’s “boy’s club” mentality that kept them down.
After Apollo, NASA looked to female scientists who experienced dangerous conditions every day, like those at Antarctic research laboratories, as potential recruits. In his new role as engineer and mission consultant, NASA sent Scott south from Cape Canaveral to a submarine research station in Palm Beach. Joyce Grob, the submariner, was exhausted and ready to go home after two weeks in the Atlantic Ocean’s depths. Instead, she remained in the research station’s office by herself, left behind to wait for some NASA hotshot to show up, while the rest of the crew (all men) went home to their families. Irritated even before she saw Scott, Joyce pounded at her typewriter’s keys.
On walking in, Scott was immediately taken with Joyce. She was wearing blue jeans, and her hair was pinned up. But that thought crashed in on him with the memory of his wife’s death. He didn’t believe he could ever love again, so he found it difficult to interact with a woman he found so beautiful. Not thinking – Joyce had the power to make swaggering Scott incredibly nervous even then – Scott assumed that Joyce, an accomplished scientist and the holder of a world record in SCUBA, wasn’t the woman he came to the station to meet. She couldn’t have possibly been the submarine pilot. She was much too attractive. So used to his NASA “boy’s club” surroundings, Scott imagined Joyce was the station’s secretary instead.
“I’m Scott MacLeod,” he said.
“I know who you are,” Joyce answered. Annoyance piqued in her voice.
With the submariner he’d come to interview apparently gone, Scott guessed he’d just have to fulfill the other part of his mission: getting a look at the research sub.
“Is there somebody who can show me a submarine?” Scott said.
“As soon as I finish this, I’ll show it to you,” Joyce said.
“Isn’t there anyone else around who can show me the submarine?” Scott said. What was wrong with me? Scott thought later. She was so pretty I forgot how to think.
This absurd misunderstanding almost marked an end to Scott and Joyce’s relationship before it had a chance to begin.
Joyce picked up her typewriter like she planned to lob it at him. Then, grimacing, she reconsidered. Best not to kill the spaceman before she could show him what an ass he was being.
She brushed off her hands and motioned for Scott to follow her from the office. Together, they boarded the tiny research submarine, and in that tight space, Joyce told Scott about all of her dives. It was then that Scott realized how much he’d put his foot in his mouth earlier.
Meanwhile, Joyce explained the sub. She knew the control system, the “throws,” and the “forces.” She even knew the kind of metal it was made out of – because she’d helped design it. Scott was more than impressed. He felt like somebody “hit him in the stomach with a baseball bat.”
Joyce too had relaxed. It was a wonder to talk about things she loved – engineering, diving, and the ocean – and have a man actually listen. And care! For Joyce, the feeling of falling in love with him was more like decompression after a deep dive, a slow release and then finally surfacing into the sunlight.
He asked her to lunch, and she said, “Why don’t you come over to my house, and I’ll fix us something.”
So he went back to his motel, put on a jacket and tie and combed his hair. When he knocked on the door to her apartment, a guttural growl, louder than any dog, issued from behind the door.
Joyce let him in, smiling and shooing back an almost fully-grown lion. Joyce fostered animals for the local zoo. Scar Face, the lion, was so enamored with her that he tried to put himself between Scott and Joyce at every chance. Finally, at the couch, Scott and Joyce sat down, but Scar Face wedged himself between them like an enormous dog.
Scott was nervous, and not just about this immense teenage lion possibly defending his surrogate mom with his three-inch-long fangs. Scott’s stomach was in his throat. There were only two other things he could remember making him feel that way: the feeling of weightlessness at the pinnacle of a test launch, and looking at his first wife’s face in the early days of falling in love.
After Joyce made them lunch – a simple salad and sandwiches – they ate facing each other across the small table in her earth-toned kitchen. Scar Face stared at Scott the whole time, and Scott, without his usual Cape Canaveral bravado, found himself growing more and more nervous until his hand jittered so badly he had to set down his fork.
“Something wrong with the food?” Joyce said. But from the spark in her eye, Scott knew she could see right through him. He had to tell her how he felt.
“I’m crazy about you,” he said.
Scott had never been the kind of person to do things in half measures. Before working with NASA, he’d been a test pilot for the Navy and for Grumman. He was used to this feeling, of plummeting towards the ground, not knowing if he could lift the plane’s nose against terminal g-forces to preempt a crash. But still, he did his job. Again and again, he faced the unknown. He faced death. For what? To find that piece in his life that was missing.
“Don’t look so scared,” Joyce said. “I’m only teasing you. I wouldn’t have let you up here if I thought you were a bum.”
While Joyce cleared the plates, Scar Face remained to guard Scott, keeping him in his seat. Scott had to head north soon, back to the Cape, but before he left, he had to know where he stood with Joyce.
They stepped out her front door, into the apartment’s breezeway. Inside, the lion growled again as if remembering Scott’s arrival.
“I want to see you again,” Scott said to her.
“But I can’t come until next weekend,” he said.
“Too busy for me?” she said.
“I’ll call you every day.”
It felt to Scott like Joyce was still deciding. She didn’t know how she felt about him. She seemed wary he’d be like the astronauts who kept “Cape Cookie” mistresses in Titusville unknown to their wives back in Texas.
The next four weekends, Scott drove down the coast, the dune grasses whipping outside his left-hand window. The blue ocean sparkled like hammered steel in the low morning sun. On these drives, he would forget about the Cape, about NASA and how it looked like his dreams of becoming an astronaut were crumbling. On these days, he’d spend hours with Joyce, his thoughts only on her and nothing else, not space, not flying, not even on going to the moon.
On the fifth weekend, business at the Cape kept Scott from visiting Joyce. He called her at the last minute to apologize, and the whole time they talked, he kept thinking that he couldn’t stand for this to happen again. He had to be with her. More than weekends and phone calls. He wanted to wake up next to her every morning. He needed the first thing he saw every day to be her face.
“I think we should get married,” Scott said. He grimaced after the words left his mouth. “I’m not proposing,” he added quickly. “Not over the phone. I’d never propose over the phone.”
“Hm. That’s too bad,” said Joyce. “I was going to say yes.”
“I am then. I am. Will you marry me?”
After 47 years of marriage, Scott and Joyce still carry on the same kind of banter. Scott is 91, and Joyce is 76. They live in an airpark in Florida about an hour north of Cape Canaveral, close enough to see launches as they arc into the sky.
On the evening of a SpaceX launch, Scott and Joyce set lawn chairs up in their driveway like they always do to watch a launch, and they tune in on their AM radio to hear the countdown.
“Everything is go… T-minus 30,” comes over the radio. “Three seconds before launch, the Merlin engines will be commanded to ignite… T-minus 20… T-minus 15. T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. And liftoff! The Falcon takes flight!”
Seconds later, the white rocket shimmers over the tree line. Soon it is only a pale flame rising in the blue dusk.
Even though Scott knows this rocket is unmanned, its ascent into the heavens fills him with longing. Of course, neither Joyce nor Scott ever went to Mars. After the birth of their first child together, Scott accepted a diplomatic appointment to Iran, and Joyce came with him, leaving her life as a submariner behind. Meanwhile in the U.S., budget cuts and politics have left manned Mars missions in their infancy for decades.
“Do you ever wish that was you?” Joyce says. She always has an uncanny way of reading him. After almost 50 years together, Scott knows Joyce can answer the question herself. That isn’t the point of her asking. She wants to give him an excuse to share how he feels.
In the past, Scott wondered how his life would have turned out if he had NASA’s famous “Right Stuff.” Instead, he was the next-best guy, always watching from Earth. But sometime after the end of the Apollo Program, he realized that all the time he’d spent looking into the void of space, he’d really been looking to fill the void in himself. Joyce did that more than any mission could ever hope to.
“I used to,” Scott said. “I would have given my right arm to go to the moon. It would have been tremendous, but, now that I can look back, I’m glad that I didn’t. If I had gone to the moon, I never would have met you.”