NASA: for the love of Io

In front of me on a gray fold-up table was the mess I had created during my time working as a NASA teacher assigned to the Galileo Space Mission based at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Northridge, California. The Ute tribes of Southwestern Colorado and the Ignacio School District had nominated  me and several Ute students to participate in the Galilean mission to Jupiter.

With a model of the Galileo spacecraft on the right side of the table providing evidence that I was really here and really working on a space mission. I recognize the different papers as I shuffle them around, there were the prototypes of lessons I prepared for JPL’s education unit as well as an early set of pictures of Io, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter.

I saw two notes from Dr. Van, head of Mission Design to which I was assigned. Mission Design basically put together the timing of the set of events that were to occur during the exploration of Jupiter. Galileo was launched in 1989 and was mid-flight when we came on-board in 1993. The efforts were highly compounded when an umbrella-looking set of solar panels failed to open correctly. Now the electricity available was about the wattage of a small light bulb. Phone book-sized amounts of data would now have to be compressed into one page to be sent back to earth. There were 11 different data-gathering instruments and their space scientists on earth vying for use of the scant electricity. Each of the instrument departments met with Mission Design to schedule ahead two years for moments when they wanted to take pictures, measure electrical fields or whatever. Mission Control would then twist and turn the spacecraft for the best shot. This was all being done two years before Galileo even reached Jupiter.

No one wanted the fiasco of the Soviet Union’s last expeditionary spacecraft. When arriving at their destination, they took a spray of pictures only to find that a mistake on earth caused the set of pictures to be actually of the foot of their own spacecraft.

Most of the rest of the papers had to do with Dr. Widner , a researcher for Mission Design, and my friend/nemesis, Dr. Bergersen, the world authority on the Galilean moon Io.

Eventually the Galileo would do a drive-by of Io and every bit of information would be gathered and scoured for importance. That was Dr. Widner’s task, to gather and transcribe all into electronic data. And she hated Dr. Bergersen.

The first time I was sent to Dr. Bergersen’s office, he opened the door about six inches, turned his head sideways to better stare at this new intruder. His eyes were bulging, probably a thyroid condition. His glasses were thick, really thick, probably a thyroid condition. His bulbous nose was probably a genetic condition. He looked Jewish to me, from someone who did not know what a Jewish person should look like. Nevertheless, he looked Jewish to me.

“Do you have the packet for Dr, Widner ready?”

“Who are you?”, he squinted. ” I need a permit.”

“What kind of permit?”

“The permit!”

After receiving a embossed JPL note saying  ‘Let him in’  by Dr. Widner, an official permit that had never existed before. I returned to Dr. Bergersen’s door. Deja vu, but the opening was not quite as wide as before.

“Who are you?” he asked wondering.

” I’m from Dr. Widner’s office and I have the permit.”

“I don’t need any permit.” Anger warming, brain slowing. ” Your badge isn’t right.” and slammed the door. That was true, mine said ‘NASA teacher, JPL, unlike any others.

The next time I saw him was at the dining hall. He was alone at a large table.

“Mind if I sit here?” I sat the tray and began to sit. His body language had been evident, but It didn’t connect with me. His left arm and elbow nearly surrounded his tray. The fork in his right hand looked to be in a stabbing mode. His head at the same level as his plate, his face turned to me.

“This is my time,” he growled. This, maybe a Jewish guy, was not very polite, I gathered and tip-toed away.

My fourth trip to his office turned out to be another ‘ door shut in my face’, and a call to Dr, Van’s office suggesting that I might be a spy for the Soviet Union. A hand carried embossed note from Dr. Van began trip five. This story was beginning to have legs. The bet around the computer room was that I would never get in.

The note said that I was not a spy, in fact I was to be his afternoon ‘Aide-de-Camp’, an underling at his disposal. His office was a tiny warehouse full of boxes containing the story of Io. The room was filled with Io.

Io , along with Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto , are the four largest moons of Jupiter. They were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. In a manner of speaking, they were discovered by Hans Bergersen in 1943. Hans took to Io, the most volcanic world in the solar system. It’s breath of sulfur dioxide made it also the most vile. Ironically to a young Hans Bergersen, Io became his mistress and his best friend.

Each morning I wrote educational worksheets for the JPL education unit and each afternoon was a crap shoot in Dr. Bergersen’s office. Some days I had files to get or deliver. Other days, I just sat, no conversation, no nothing.

Finally I discovered the key to the situation. Second to Io, there was something about Dr.Bergersen and strudel. That morning before catching the Cal-Tech bus, I bought some strudel at the little bake shop on Colorado Avenue. That afternoon as I unwrapped my snack, Dr. B glanced over at the noisy unwrapping. Whatever event this strudel triggered, it was remarkable. He stood and just stared at the pastry, his mind watching a rerun of some other time and some other place.

“Would you like some fresh strudel?” I asked, surprised that Dr. Bergersen was showing such an emotional moment.

“I will make tea.”

As the afternoons of strudel and tea passed, Hans relived Nazi Germany and his escape with other German scientists just at the last moment. A portion of him could not leave those horrible times. Dementia was evident, probably the reason for his odd behavior. He wanted into the Galileo project so that his moon would get the respect it deserved, only to find that they wanted control of his only friend. Each time JPL requested information that only he knew,  it felt to him as if it was torn from his flesh. He knew he was losing the battle, he had nothing else.

My best memory of Hans was of the only joke he ever told, over and over.

” Since Io has very little atmosphere, The stench of Io’s volcanoes is blown all over the solar system,” he would say. “So if I am ever lost in outer space, I will take in a deep breathe of ‘ the absence of air’ and sniff out the sulfur dioxide trail all the way back to Io.” Then chuckling, ” then I would know where I was…”

He wished to be buried on Io…





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