Starting in the spring, 1962 semester, Rice University, in Houston, asked me to become a “Visiting Lecturer.” Rice was ramping up its astronautical engineering department and someone thought that the unfolding history of the new space age ought to be taught. In return for giving the occasional lecture on current happenings in the space program and related topics, I was given an office, access to the University’s considerable resources, and a group of research slaves (i.e. grad students) to do my bidding. I made sure that group included a mix of engineering as well as history students, the better to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge.
One afternoon, soon after John Glenn had made his first Mercury orbital flight, I was in my Rice office going over some recently declassified papers about the early days of the Orion project. I heard a discreet knock at my door. I bit back irritation at being interrupted, looked up, and said, “Yes?”
The door opened. A stunning young woman, dressed in a white blouse and green plaid skirt, entered my office. She had chestnut hair, cut with bangs covering the ears in the style of the time. She was very attractive in all of the usual ways, atypical I am told of the TRG (i.e Typical Rice Girl.) “Professor Neal?” she asked. Her voice was firm, without losing any of its femininity. She was carrying a folder.
“That’s what it says on the door.”
“I’m Marion McShane,” she informed me. “Do you have a moment?”
Ordinarily I would have growled, “Make an appointment with the Secretary,” and then returned to what I was doing. But there was something about her that caught my attention. It wasn’t just her beauty, but her attitude. It was one of calm confidence. It was that I found even more attractive about her than her breasts and eyes. So instead I found myself saying, “Sure.”
She sat down in the guest chair and placed the folder on my desk.
“My doctorial dissertation.” She smiled. “Professor Tillerman suggested that you might find it of interest.”
I opened the folder and looked at the paper within. It was headlined: “Space Exploration in Myth, Legend, and Literature.” I looked up at her.
“This is kind of outside my area of expertise,” I said.
“Not necessarily,” she replied. “Would you read it?”
“Well, I have to fly up to Washington and then Florida in a couple of days,” I told her. “I guess I can look at it on the plane.”
Sure enough, Miss McShane’s dissertation was pretty straight forward. I was not ordinarily interested in literature except where it related to historical events, but Miss McShane’s paper was very clearly written and actually did contain parallels between instances in literature and real life events. I devoured the paper on the plane to Washington. There I had some meetings with NASA Administrator James Webb, some members of Congress, and some White House staffers. The wrangling over the 1963 budget had just started and I needed a sense of where it was going. It looked like Senator Proxmire was going to try to insert his amendment again. This time he had garnered some support from some elements of the scientific community.
Meanwhile, the President was thinking of doing a space speech at Rice Stadium and his staff wanted my thoughts on it. In return, I got some more interviews from key space players in the administration. Volume One of my history of the Orion Project was beginning to take shape.
Florida was next. In late February, it was a cool, breezy place. People at the Cape were already preparing for the next Mercury flight, but the man I wanted to see was helping to design a rocket that would be as to the Atlas as the Atlas was a model rocket. He had been working at the NASA facility in northern Alabama, but was at the Cape for some meetings of his own and was able to spare me some time. You have doubtless heard of him. He was Dr. Von Braun.
He was a handsome, courtly man who spoke good English, but with a Teutonic accent. He wanted to tell me about the Saturn.
“In the first stage, five F1 rockets burning liquid oxygen and kerosene,” he explained to me. “Seven and a half million pounds of thrust. In the second stage, five J 2s, and in the third stage one J 2. Before Orion, we had thought that this might be the rocket that would take men to the Moon. Now it will be our workhorse. It can take the space shuttle, the cargo carrier, even a mini Orion.”
“A mini Orion?”
“Ja. This was studied two years ago. A 125 ton or so Orion with a crew of eight. It could go to the Moon easily.”
I was puzzled by this. Two years ago? But as it turned out, at the time, the Orion people were desperately trying to find allies to help them continue their project, which was being funded on a shoe string. The big chemical rocket people, led by Von Braun, seemed natural candidates for this role. Ironically, things were now reversed and with money flowing into Project Orion, the chemical rocket engineers were trying to find ways for their work to fit into the grand scheme of things. Von Braun, knowing of my contacts with the Administration, was trying to use me for that purpose. That bothered me, because a historian is not supposed to become part of the story he is trying to tell.
Meanwhile, I had Miss McShane’s paper to deal with. The day after I got back to Houston, I arranged to meet her at a quaint little Mexican restaurant near the campus. Over chips and salsa I gave her my impressions of what she had written.
“I notice that you’ve only found one instance in literature in which space travel could even be considered something people might oppose,” I said.
“The Asimov science fiction story,” she said.
“That’s right. Though in the real world, the main stream religions seem to be more approving of space travel.” Few people had heard of the Church of the Last Days in the late winter of 62.
“Well, Asimov is a religious skeptic after all.”
“Methodist. That’s a good, solid middle class faith that doesn’t scare a lot of people.”
I smiled. I was a lapsed Baptist, though like a lot of other people I found myself entreating the Lord a lot during the days after the Damocles announcement. “But your conclusion that centuries of story telling about space travel have prepared us for the real thing is something I find interesting.”
“Computer people I know would say that we were programmed for it.”
“Programmed?” Remember, this was 1962.
“That’s what they call writing the instructions that make computers do what they do.”
“Ah, I see.” An English major who knew that. Fascinating.
I don’t know to this day when the conversation turned from the professional to the personal. But suffice to say that over enchiladas and tacos I learned that Miss McShane was from a small town in Ohio, where, “The only thing for a full blooded teenager to do is to sneak off to a make out spot in the woods by the lake and smooch.” I laughed, because it sounded like my birth place in Georgia. She talked about feeling alienated because of her intelligence and interest in Shakespeare, Twain, and a British fellow few people had ever heard back then of named Tolkien. All the other girls were interested in boys and rock and roll. She liked boys, but found very few who struck her fancy, and preferred Bach to Elvis.
I told her about growing up in Northern Georgia, where the War Between the States (as we insisted on calling it) was as real and current as the news from yesterday. I told her of walking places like Gettysburg and Shiloh with my father, whose grand father had fought with Marse Robert. I told her about my own college experience, getting my first teaching job, writing my first book, and then how my life and career had taken a turn at dinner with the President.
“It’s strange,” I said. “In a way, the next great battle will take place on some rock millions of miles away. And it’ll be a battle, not for land or idealism or loot, to save the human race.”
“Are we going to win?” she asked.
There was something in the tone of that question that gave me pause, which deserved I thought something more than a flip answer. “Yes,” I said. “We’re going to win.”
“How can you be sure? Let’s say you and I got married-“
“Hypothetically. Our first child would be in his or her thirties when Damocles gets here. Would you sire a child knowing that?”
I thought for a moment. “Yeah,” I said. “I would. Because if you give up hope decades before the event, then you might as well give up living.”
She smiled at me then. “I think I like you, Dr. Neal.”
“My name is Cornelius,” I replied.
“I want to see you again, Cornelius.”
Back then there were rules about fraternizing with students, but they were honored more in the breach. Besides, she was not my student. “There’s a Bach concert on campus next Saturday, Miss Mc-“
“Marion. It’s Marion. And yes, I’d love to go with you.”
I dropped her off at her off campus apartment, then drove home in the happiest frame of mind I had been in over a year. I wasn’t in love, yet, but the prospect of a relationship with a real, live woman enthralled me.
Still, there was work to do and something Marion had said made me think. The next day I had one of my grad student/research slaves make inquiries with the Census Bureau. A few days later the answers came back.
Roughly nine months after the President’s announcement, there had been a sharp increase in births in the United States. What did that mean? A lot of people having sex in consolation for being told that everyone might be dead in forty years? The birth rate dropped off after about a month to what it had been before the announcement, but did not dip very far below it. So most people were not thinking about bringing children into a world where they might die in less than forty years. What did that mean?
I wondered for a while whether I could get the government to spring for a polling research firm to try to find out. I had theories. Forty years constituted a period too long for people to plan ahead. As the world got closer to the event, then we might see a drop off of births. Also it occurred to me that for the past ten or so years the world had already been living under threat of death. One crisis gone wrong, one mistake made in some control room, and the bombers and missiles would fly and the mushroom clouds would roar where great cities such as New York, Paris, and Moscow once stood. Yet most people were carrying on with their lives, having babies, raising families as if things were normal. Indeed it was a macabre type of normality, lived already under a type of Damocles. The big rock by that name headed our way was just one more threat which might or might not be averted.
That spring, a new class of astronauts was chosen. This class included nine men and six women. It seemed that there had been a number of women who had gone through a lot of the same testing and training that the Mercury astronauts had gone through and had performed very well. However, none of them were going to actually fly in space. In 1962, a woman’s place was supporting her man.
Damocles changed all that. Even the government had figured out that if we proposed to build colonies on the Moon and Mars to preserve the human race just in case we failed to stop Damocles, some of the people there had to be women. The government even realized that female biology was different than the male kind, and not just in the obvious ways. We had to know how the conditions of space flight would affect that biology. So women were going to fly in space, probably in a Mercury flight or two, certainly in the Gemini, and of course on the Orions.
This development caused lots of consternation, not only in the media, but within NASA. Outwardly, NASA had saluted and had welcomed the new women astronauts with open arms. But some elements of NASA, including some of the male astronauts, were not very happy.
That April, I scored an interview with a member of the new class, a thirty year old lady named Francine Barry. She was a tall, healthy, black haired beauty who, like all of the other female selectees, was a commercial pilot. She wore a white blouse and tan slacks to our meeting at a little sea food place near where the Manned Space Flight Center was being built.
Francine had a Katherine Hepburn confidence that I found appealing. She had started her career as a commercial charter pilot for a small firm in Washington State. She had gotten a call from a friend about a special program at the Lovelace Foundation that would put a group of women through all of the tests and evaluations that the original Mercury 7 astronauts had gone through. At the time the Lovelace Foundation, a private medical testing facility in Albuquerque, was being used by NASA and DOD to evaluate astronaut candidates. She had jumped at the chance, suspecting (hoping really) that the prohibition against female astronauts would not last forever.
She told me outrageous stories about being spun about in centrifuges, rotated in three degrees of axis devices, baked, frozen, poked, prodded, having every bodily orifice examined and every bodily fluid sampled. And she told me about lying to flight surgeons. I had already found out from talking to some of the male astronauts that it was common, seeing as just one minor thing might be the difference between flying into space and washing out. But the women had a particular problem. It seemed that there was a belief at the time that it was dangerous for women on their periods to fly space craft. So, to avoid being grounded every month or so, every woman undergoing astronaut testing would answer, “Irregular” when asked about how often they had their periods. As a result, as a later found out, for years afterwards the medical community had been scratching its collective forehead over the “fact” that female pilots tended to have irregular periods.
In any event, along with about a dozen other women, Francine passed with flying colors. And then…nothing. At least until Damocles.
She sat opposite me, a lit cigarette in one hand, a shrimp covered in tarter sauce in the other. “I swear, the way some of those male astronauts are reacting, you’d think that we come to steal their wives or girl friends.” That was a shocking suggestion in 1962. “Of course none of us are oriented that way.”
“Have any of them hit on you?” I asked.
She laughed and took a drag on the cigarette. “A couple. I don’t believe a one of them have ever met a career woman before. Have you?”
“There are women in academia, Miss Barry,” I told her. I was uncomfortable and fascinated at the same time.
“Then you’re way ahead of America’s greatest heroes. Especially that boy scout Glenn.”
“Was he one of the-“
“Oh, heavens no. Loyal to the little woman to a fault. Treats all of us like ladies. Of course he hates us being astronauts just as much as the rest.”
“So who’s going to fly the Mercury mission?”
“I am, of course, Dr. Neal.”
“And if I asked any of your woman associates?”
“They would to the woman reply that they are. But they’re wrong.” She took another drag on the cigarette and smiled.
She told me a lot about her experiences as a flyer, I had heard a lot of it before. There was something positively spiritual about soaring through the sky at the controls of ones own plane, dipping through the clouds, the sun glinting on the wings. “Maybe you could show me sometime?” I suggested, not knowing why at the time. I had never been in a small plane before, but for some reason I anxiously wanted to fly in one with Francine at the controls.
“I’d like that,” she said. “Perhaps in return you’ll give me a tour of Gettysburg?” At first I thought she was mocking me, but I quickly realized she was in earnest. “You see, I read you book when they told me we would be chatting.”
“Indeed.” Then we fell into chatting about the movements of men in blue and gray almost a century before, whether Lee was touched for launching Pickett’s Charge, and whether a handful of men from Maine had saved the Union on the Little Round Top. I had not planned to discuss my first love in history, but I was enchanted that Francine took an interest.
In fact, after we parted and I drove home, I could not get the woman out of my mind. She was not like any woman I had ever met, even the ladies with sharp minds I had run into in academia like Marion McShane. The attraction went beyond sexual, though there was certainly more than enough of that. I wondered if this new world that space travel was going to forge would change men and women in ways we had yet to imagine.
Thinking those thoughts, instead of working after dinner, as I usually did, I sat out on the porch, facing the beach, watching the sky darken as I sipped a glass of bourbon and branch. Afterwards I went straight to bed and had a fitful nights sleep.
Fortunately I had Marion to distract me. The Bach concert had gone well and she had even permitted me to kiss her good night, a brief, lady-like kiss that only hinted at passions to come. We went out several more times that spring, the theater (Houston had a very good one called the Alley), concerts, the occasional movie. Francine Barry faded to the back of my mind, but never quite left it.
Come late spring, Marion had to defend her thesis. A panel of three professors from the English Department sat at a long table. Marion was placed in a comfortable chair facing them. I was allowed to sit in as a courtesy, since I had offered advice on the thesis. I was even allowed to ask questions, but I would not have a vote as to whether the thesis was accepted.
The process took about three hours and it was as grueling as I remember my own being. The examining professors would fire off questions about some minute detail and then sit back while Marion provided detailed answers. She did not sweat or behave nervously in any way, but was very calm and prepared.
The decision was quite unanimous. Marion McShane would be conferred with a degree of Doctor of Philosophy. I was very proud, let me tell you.
There was a celebration at a nearby club, which was quickly filled with grad students and professors drinking beer, smoking, and talking oppressively loud. Marion was the center of attention, of course, and I contented myself to admiring from afar. She was radiantly happy; one could tell from the expression on her face. And why not? She had worked hard for the degree. Four years of undergraduate work. Three years of graduate study.
I got her away around midnight and we drove back to my house. We sat on my porch, watching the Moon shine above the beach, drinking the last of a bottle of champagne that I had gotten for the occasion. We talked, mostly, about her future plans. It looked like that the university was going to offer her an associate professorship. She would have to teach young undergraduate skulls full of mush about Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemmingway, and Conrad. But she would have as graduate level seminar studying space related literature. She joked that she would be the first academic to have her subscriptions to science fiction magazines paid for by an English Department.
I don’t know what time it was when I finally kissed her. It was a long, lingering, lover’s kiss that seemed to last forever. We got up, stumbled over to the bedroom, and made love in a awkward, funny, magic session that featured a lot of fumbling at buttons and bra hooks, as well as laughter. The supreme moment, I think, was as wonderful for her as it was to me. Then we fell asleep in one another’s arms.
I woke up when the morning was already old. Thank God it was Saturday and I did not have any appointments. I laid there for a while, listening to her breathing with her head on my chest.
When she finally stirred, I stroked her hair and said, “Marion.”
“Hmmm,” she murmured, like a kitten.
“Marion, marry me,” I said.
That got her awake, it seemed. She raised her head and smiled at me. “Well,” she said, “you really do respect me in the morning.”
“I mean it, dearest.”
She kissed me. “Of course I’ll marry you, silly man. Took your time asking, I must say.”
Children of Orion – Chapter 2
Children of Orion – Chapter 4
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.