Monday, January 6, 2003

Parson Family Residence - Houston, Texas

Harry Parson looked into the mirror on the wall, and an undertaker looked back. At least, the guy staring at him could have been prepping for a funeral service.

Maybe he was…

He straightened his tie once more and stepped out of his childhood bedroom. It somehow added to his fear of failing. Not having the money to afford a hotel room was one thing, but knowing he was about out of options but to come back here and live was another one entirely. Knowing that failure today meant the start of a career in the exciting world of asphalt paving wasn’t helping to settle his stomach. He thought about stopping at the fridge to grab a Coke, hoping the caffeine would settle his nerves but decided against it.

Worrying about a bathroom break in the middle of the biggest job interview of his life wasn’t going to help. He figured nothing said ‘don’t hire me’ like taking five minutes in the can while someone was about to decide what department to assign him to.

It would have been worse if Mom and Dad were actually here. He knew they cared – they cared a lot about their sixth and youngest son’s future, but having mom straighten his tie and lick her finger before she used it to try to mat his cowlick down wasn’t going to help anything.

It was abnormally warm and sunny for a Houston winter morning, but it felt good when he stepped out into the sunlight. Mom’s hatchback didn’t exactly have a confidence-boosting look to it, but at least it didn’t have wood paneling, and it wasn’t the bus. He knew his interviewer would never see it, but somehow, just knew an SUV or even a pickup would just feel…


He glanced at his watch and decided it was time to get on the road. He hoped his future was waiting for him across town at the Johnson Space Center.

It was time to find out.

Friday, January 31, 2003

Johnson Space Center – Houston, Texas

Harry idly wondered who might have sat in this seat in this conference room. Glen? Armstrong? Ride? Kelly? The history in this room alone did nothing to settle his nerves.

“Harry Parson?” A woman dressed in a black pantsuit asked hesitantly.

Harry started. He hadn’t even heard her come through the door. “Yes Ma’am. I’m sorry, I was lost imagining who might have sat in this chair before me.”

She smiled. “I did, for one. My associates should be—“

The door opened again, revealing two men dressed in shirt sleeves and harried expressions. “Sorry we’re late. The schedule had this in the security building.”

“I just got here myself,” the woman said. “I didn’t even get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Stephanie Johnson. I’m with Human Resources.”

“James Alley with orbital mechanics.”

“Steve Kress. Spaceflight operations.”

“Harry Parson. Hopeful job candidate.”

“Sorry we’re late,” Steve said. “Who wants to start?”

He looked around at the blank faces, seemed to count to ten, turned back to Harry and finally said, “Why should we recommend you?”

“Who taught you how to interview?” Stephanie snickered. “Why don’t you just give the poor man a coronary?”

“Oh come on,” James said. “He knows he’s been vetted up one end and down the other at this point. He wouldn’t be here if we weren’t sure he could do the job. We just need to know if he will.”

“My dad sells flooring retail,” Harry began without preamble. “He’s worked every day for I don’t know how long. When my mom took me to launches, Dad went to work. I’ve seen shuttles fly, rockets launch – I cried when Challenger exploded. Not just my life, but my family’s whole life has been about spaceflight. I’m going to be a part of it, I’d just prefer to make my contribution here, where so many others have before me. I want to continue their legacy.”

Friday, January 31, 2003

Johnson Space Center MCC Parking – Houston, Texas

“I just don’t know, Mom,” Harry said over his cell. He’d rolled down the windows on the car he borrowed from her to catch some of the breeze and hopefully cool off a bit.

He felt like he’d been through a washing machine.

“Yeah, it was better than four hours. Tell Dad I got a killer tour of the place at least.” Harry listened for another minute before he asked, “How is the trip, anyway?”

He saw one of the guys that had interviewed him step into the far side of the parking lot and slumped down into his seat as he listened. The odds of getting seen were slim, but he didn’t want to get caught talking to his mommy while he sat in the car he’d borrowed from her. “I’m glad you’re having fun. Take lots of pictures, all right?”

Once he hung up, Harry loosened his tie and slipped his jacket off. He decided then and there that he was going to Steamboat House for a celebratory dinner. Right or wrong, he’d just survived a four hour three person interview with NASA.

His cell rang again. He didn’t recognize the number, but it was local. “This is Harry Parson.”

The woman on the other side sounded familiar. “Hi Harry. This is Stephanie Johnson with NASA. Do you have a minute to talk?”

“Of course. It’s nice to speak to you again. By the way, thank you for taking the time to interview me earlier today.”

Her voice was light. “That’s actually why I’m calling.  You were the last interview for the opening, and Steve and James have made their decision. Would you like to come to work with us?”

Tears streamed from Harry’s eyes. “I’d like that very much.”

“We’re excited to have you join the team. How soon can you start?”

“Monday?” Harry choked out.

“I’ll see you in security at eight o’clock to begin your onboarding then. I’ll look forward to seeing you.”

“You too. Thank you so much.”

“It’s our pleasure. Have a nice weekend, Harry.”

“You too.”

Friday, January 31, 2003

Steamboat House – Houston, Texas

Harry’s steak left him feeling empty. The food was excellent, but it didn’t provide the companionship he was hoping for. He wanted to be around other people. Friends would have been nice. The irony was, of course, that since his parents were away, right now he had no one.

“Mr. Parson?”

Harry jumped. Being so completely sure he was in his own world made it more surprising when someone spoke to him by name. He looked up and found the woman from his just-completed interview in front of him.

“Eh… uh… Stephanie, right?”

Her face reddened in seconds. “I’m… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

“Not at all,” Harry said, standing awkwardly. “Join me, please?”

“You look like you’re finished,” she said timidly.

Harry shook his head and gestured toward the empty chair across from him. “Please? There’s always dessert.”

Her smile was all the answer he needed. Once they were seated, she asked, “Do you come here often?”

He shook his head. “Almost never, actually. My parents used to bring me here when I was a kid, but I haven’t been here for years.”

“You’re from Houston?”

He nodded. “Born and raised. How about you?”

“I’ve been here a couple of years. I’m from Orlando originally.”

“You came here for NASA?”

She laughed. “Why else would anyone come to Houston?”

“You wound me,” he smiled. “Is it really that bad here?”

“It’s not Florida.”

The waiter appeared, and Stephanie ordered her meal. Harry had them bring another refill for his iced tea. “So where would you live if you had the choice?”

She looked off into the distance thoughtfully before she answered with a smile. “I’m not sure the where matters as much as the with who.”

Her words settled on his heart bringing warmth the meal hadn’t. “The right company always makes anywhere the right place to be.”

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Parson Residence – Houston, Texas

Harry was still in shock when the phone rang. The voice on the other side sounded familiar but strained. “Mr. Parson?”

“This is Harry Parson.”

“This is Stephanie Johnson with NASA.”

“Hello. What can I do for you?”

“I assume you’re aware of the incident.”

“I’ve been watching the news.” Harry realized he was shaking. He wasn’t officially attached to the shuttle program, but he knew this couldn’t be good for his future.

“Harry, Steve Kress is forming up search parties. It’s important that they try to find and contain what debris they can. Could you come in?”

“Of course,” he said a little too loud and a little too quickly. 

He couldn’t help it – he was relieved he hadn’t just lost his job.

“Bring hiking boots, if you have them. It would be best if you brought a change of clothes, too, but you’ll be outside.”

“Where do I need to go?”

“I’ll have a credential waiting for you at security. We’re going to exempt your paperwork for now, if you don’t mind. Can you go straight to MCC and find Steve?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you for this, Mr. Parson. We’re grateful for the help.”

A shiver shot up Harry’s spine. He was immediately caught between his sorrow for their loss and complete bewilderment at being involved in something so important.

“Thank you for asking me. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He disconnected the phone and stood thinking far more thoughts than his mind could actually process for a moment. Action came quickly once he started moving. With a backpack over his shoulder, warm coat and hiking boots on, and note to his parents on the counter, he dashed out the door and headlong into whatever was to come.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Johnson Space Center MCC – Houston, Texas

“Ladies and gentlemen, your mission is simple. You will be deployed in teams of two and squads of ten. You’ll walk from West to East, always within easy sight of the next team. If you find something, you call it in. Are there any questions?”

Harry had plenty, but none were rather appropriate for his first day on the job.

“How do we get to the field?” A woman asked from near the back of the briefing auditorium.

“The National Guard has graciously offered to provide us with transportation,” Steve Kress said from the podium in front. As if on cue, the air thrummed with the familiar sound of helicopters. “It looks like our rides are here. Let’s go, people.”

It all seemed kind of elementary, at first. Harry stood with the rest of his row and followed his teammate, Chase, who in turn followed their team leader. The doors opened to reveal what looked like the ultimate spring day, except for the three army-green Blackhawk helicopters idling on the dormant grass.

“Have you ever been in a helicopter before?” Chase, shouted.

“No. You?”

“Just once!” Chase said as he grabbed for his earplugs.

“Good flight?”

“No!” Chase went on with his earplugs with practiced hands. “The Iraqis shot the shit out of it. Never been so scared in my life!”

“You were in the Army?”

“Four years!”

“Why’d you get out?”

“I’m a bullet magnet,” he smiled. “Got tired of getting shot at!”

Harry decided, then and there, that his own fear was nothing. This guy that he didn’t even know was facing this with a smile on his face and a head full of bad memories.

There was work to be done.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Shuttle Columbia Debris Containment – Nacogdoches County, Texas

Harry stood focused on the brick on the ground. It wasn’t really a brick, of course, but it had the look of one. It was about the same size, and at least in the most basic sense, it was made out of the same thing. Given the scorching, one could even imagine it had been used in a fire ring, or maybe an outdoor barbecue.

Of course, it hadn’t.

It was a thermal protection tile from the Columbia. Even disregarding everything else, the number printed on the tile located the exact location it had been installed on the orbiter. He might have only been employed by NASA for a few hours, but it was something any space-nut would have identified in the circumstances.

He didn’t act. He couldn’t. He knew what to do – their instructions were simple. He was to mark the position with the hand-held Global Positioning System unit he’d been given, notify his team, and then call it in on the satellite phone he’d been issued.

He looked at the tile and saw the astronauts again, the ones he’d watched on TV the other day when the shuttle launched. They were so confident and proud, and now they were dead.

Was it because someone made a mistake? Was it one of them? Was it an engineer like he was now that made a bad call?

Harry took a deep breath and calmed himself, the way his dad had taught him to do so long ago. He didn’t know a prayer, but he said one anyway. He tried to say things about courage and peace in the next life, but in the end, he wasn’t sure if he’d done it right.

And then he followed his instructions.

There wasn’t anything else to do.

Sunday, February 2, 2003

Johnson Space Center MCC – Houston, Texas

Harry was exhausted as he walked away from the thrum of the helicopter blades in the night. Adrenaline, fear, sorrow, exhaustion – it had all left him…

A long time ago.

They hadn’t stopped. No one had wanted to, and no one had asked to. They switched on flashlights when the sun went down, stumbled over hidden rocks and weeds, but they kept going through the night and throughout the next day.

Harry walked right past the woman standing at the edge of the field. Part of him didn’t recognize her in the dim light, and the rest of him wouldn’t have believed she was standing there waiting for him.

“Harr-“ Stephanie stuttered nervously. “Harry. I mean, Mr. Parson, I need to speak with you if you have a moment.”

A jolt of shock stopped Harry in his tracks. He turned and recognition brought a name, and face to the voice. He couldn’t help it – it also brought his smile. “Harry is fine. I didn’t know it was you when I passed by.”

“I know it’s late, but… We really need to do at least some of your paperwork.” She smiled a little. “I’d buy you dinner if you’d come with me.”

“That’s never going to happen,” Harry said with a tired shake of his head. 

“Dinner’s on me.”

“We’ll have to stop by my office to pick up your packet. We could eat in the cafeteria. The food’s not great, but the portions are big, if you’re hungry.”

Harry’s stomach growled out an unmistakable answer.

She nodded and pointed to her left. “It won’t take long. My office is this way.”

“Do you always work this late?” Harry asked as he fell into step beside her.

Stephanie’s answer was matter-of-fact. “No, not usually, but sometimes there’s a good reason.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Johnson Space Center Employee Parking – Houston, Texas

“Oh, so now you want to talk to me?” Stephanie asked playfully.

“I wanted to talk to you yesterday.” Harry’s eyebrows raised. “I didn’t have your number yesterday.”

She smiled as she sat her briefcase down on the roof of her Mazda and pulled a business card from an interior pocket. She looked a little sheepish when she handed it to him. “It’s not very romantic, but it has my number.”

She wanted to be romantic? 

Harry’s heart fluttered a little. 

He could feel his face turning red.

She was settled behind the steering wheel with her sunglasses on and the window rolled down before he finally spoke. “What about dinner on Friday?”

“What about it?” She smiled back.

“Want to have some? With me?”

She nodded. “My place or yours?”

“Well, at my place, you’re liable to meet my mom and dad. They should be home tomorrow.”

“Your place, then. I’d love to meet your parents.”

“I’d love for you to meet them. Seven or so?”


“Need my address?”

She looked a little sheepish. “I remember it from your paperwork.”

“That’s kind of impressive. I have to look at the nametag on the inside of my underpants to remember my name sometimes.”

“I’ll see you then, Hanes.” She winked, put her car in gear and drove away.

Holy cow…Harry tried, for a second, to remember when his last date had been, before the simple fact that he’d never had one in the first place came back to light.

And his first was going to be with his parents there?

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Office of Steve Kress, Johnson Space Center MCC – Houston, Texas

“Harry, I know you’re new here, so I want to assure you there’s no harm in slipping a calculation, but the fuel curve you calculated for the GALEX launch is incorrect. It’s okay, though, this is why we back these calculations up with a supercomputer and double-redundancy.”

“The launch contractor confirmed a point-zero-two-five percent increase in the weight of their primary fuel pressure vessel. Whoever programmed the computer didn’t account for the change in the update; it was deemed a non-factor in the last Operational Readiness Report, but a change is a change, Sir. In this case, it’s going to require another point-two-three seconds of main engine thrust to compensate.”

Steve Kress leaned back in his chair. “The ship’s computer would have caught that and compensated. There’s more than enough fuel.”

“You didn’t ask me if the computer would have compensated for a below-curve thrust. You asked me to confirm the fuel utilization curve for the launch, Sir.”

“It wasn’t a test, Harry.”

“I didn’t assume that it was. I assumed it was a task.”

“One you’ve made a bunch of folks look a little foolish by completing,” Steve laughed.

Harry stared over Steve’s shoulder and tried to pick out likenesses of mountain ranges in the wall texturing.

“Your time here has been a case-study in ‘it wasn’t supposed to be like this’ so far, Harry. You doing all right?”

“I’d like to believe I’m getting the hang of it, Sir.”

Friday, February 7, 2003

Parson Residence – Houston, Texas

“So the patient looks back at his therapist, disgruntled, of course, and shouts, ‘You were the one drawing the dirty pictures!’”

Dad—“ Harry snapped.

Any rebuke Harry pointed at his father was drowned out by Stephanie’s laughter. Mr. Parson said nothing, just looked more than satisfied with himself.

“Dear, we try not to laugh at his jokes. It just encourages him,” Mrs. Parson said with a dry smile.

“Oh, I’ll go on without any encouragement,” Mr. Parson said as he stood up and carried his plate to the sink.

Stephanie followed. “What can I do to help clean up?”

“Oh, nothing, Dear. I’ll take care of this in the morning,” Mrs. Parson said. “It’s been delightful to have a guest. Will we see you again?”

“I certainly hope so,” Stephanie said. “I’ve had a lovely time with you all.”

After hugs goodbye were exchanged, Harry walked Stephanie to her car. They got all of the way to her car door before Stephanie broke the silence by kissing Harry.

It was a good kiss.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” She asked once they parted.

His hands had found her waist. Hers were laced behind his neck. 

“Dreaming about you,” He said finally.

“Seriously. What are you up to?”

He grinned. “Now that I’m an upstanding, employed citizen. I thought I should move out of my childhood bedroom. The movers are bringing my stuff next week; I’m supposed to check out an apartment. You want to come?”

She kissed him again. “Absolutely.”

He laughed. “I’ll pick you up in Mom’s station wagon.”

“I’ll wait all night.”

Saturday February 8, 2003

Midtown Park Place – Houston, Texas

“It’s beautiful. Can you really afford this?” Stephanie whispered.

“It’s too big for just me,” Harry said. “It is nice though. It has great light.”

“Great kitchen, too,” Stephanie said. “I could cook up a storm in there.”

“Why don’t you, then?”

Stephanie laughed. “Human Resources doesn’t pay what Operational Engineering does.”

“I didn’t ask you to help pay.” Harry suddenly heard his heart beating in his ears.

She took his hands in his. “It’s a sweet offer, Harry. I don’t want you to think I’m not attracted to you, but I can’t live that way.”

“Old school values?”

Her blush was her answer.

“I can fix that, too. We have enough weekend to get to Vegas and back, if we hurry.”

Her bashful eyes turned hopeful.

“Every couple has to figure it out, Stephanie. You light up my world whenever you walk into it. I don’t want to lose that, and I never will. I’d be lucky to spend my life with you.”

“Even when I get my period, my boobs sag, and I fart in bed?” Stephanie asked.

“If you’ll still love me when I dribble pee on the toilet seat and belch in front of your parents.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck as she had the night before, pulled him close, and kissed him as if her life depended on it. Because, right in that moment,  she felt the life she saw  that they could have together and wanted  more than anything did depend on her convincing him that she didn’t want to let it slip away.

If he felt what she did as they connected, it would say more to him than her words ever could.

“There’ll be a redeye to Vegas,” she said as soon as she caught her breath.