Ira! - The real story* behind the first man to Mars
Although the late astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker is supposed to be the first Earthling to have their ashes flown to another planet, his 1999 flight to the moon aboard the Lunar Prospector probe came too late to enjoy that distinction. Certainly Dr. Shoemaker, whose pioneering work that made the Apollo Lunar geo-science program such a success, certainly deserved to have his dream of going to the moon fulfilled. He is not, however, the first interplanetary necro-cosmonaut, thanks to a chain of unlikely events that placed the ashes of my friend, Ira Neal, on a Mars-bound trajectory back in 1992. Although circumstances prevented him from actually entering Mars orbit, Ira, or at least a portion of his ashes, is to my knowledge, the first person to leave Earth orbit, and certainly the first to visit the Red Planet.
Ira and I were introduced by a mutual friend somewhere around 1981 and became fast friends almost immediately. He was a large, soft-spoken guy, about 10 years my senior, whose heavyset build and bushy beard caused him to look very much like the older brother I never had. In fact, we looked enough alike that we often amused ourselves by posing as brothers in the restaurants, bars, and other haunts we frequented. Our similar technical backgrounds and a love of good times made it easy to talk about the things that were important to us, and it created a safe haven of friendship that sheltered us from the tough realities of our jobs, relationships, and life circumstances.
During most of the time I knew him, Ira was working as a troubleshooter at Commodore Computer, an early manufacturer of low-cost PCs. Over the same period, I knocked around through a couple of jobs and ended up building spacecraft for GE out in Hightstown, NJ. We were both fascinated by each other’s work and managed to sneak each other into our respective factories for unofficial tours. I still remember Ira’s eyes getting big, just as mine had the first time, when we zipped up our cleanroom suits and took a close-up look at the communications satellite I was working on at the time.
Over the years, we hung out together and got to know each other as we spent the odd Friday night out and helped each other out with various projects and schemes. We shared as much as most men do of each other’s thought and feelings, including the darker sides of our lives. His friendship and humor helped me survive the stifling and melancholy long-term relationship with a very troubled girlfriend I had at the time. Hopefully, I was able to return the favor as he wrestled with his set of demons from his past.
The time Ira served as a cryptographer in Vietnam still haunted him. He’d spent most of his time maintaining secure communications gear, much of it in remote locations deep inside the Vietnamese countryside. This could be very dangerous by itself, but things got even tougher when he’d be called upon to recover sensitive electronic gear from aircraft downed behind enemy lines. During these adventures, as he called them, he’d usually be dropped into the crash site by a helicopter, which would hover nearby while he and another tech pulled the equipment from the plane. This was always a tricky proposition since the sound of a helicopter would attract the attention of any enemy troops nearby.
Most of the time, they would manage to extract the equipment and get back to the ‘chopper before the ground fire got too bad. On more than one occasion, however, heavy enemy fire forced the pilot to leave before they could pick up the recovery team. When this happened, Ira and his partner would have to start back on foot, hoping they could evade capture and stay alive long enough to make it back home.
Ira told me that there had been several incidents like this which brought him so close to death, and he finally came to believe that he was simply not going to go home alive. In an odd way, this outlook helped him survive his tour of duty by giving him a calm detachment in crisis situations and the license to enjoy himself whenever he could.
He took this philosophy back from Vietnam, and although it contributed to his happy-go-lucky demeanor, I also think it gave him a fatalistic approach to life. Despite repeated warnings from friends, family, and doctors, Ira would often refuse to take the medication that controlled a severe case of hypertension. He told me that the drugs made him tired, and that he’d rather risk a stroke or worse than let them slow him down.
I’m not sure whether Ira knew something was wrong the day he and his family paid a weekend visit, but somehow we found ourselves talking about our own mortality and how we were dealing with it. Standing by the barbeque, we both agreed that most funerals we had seen were sorry affairs that did neither the deceased nor their survivors any good.
I told Ira that my idea was to spend a minimum of money on burial or cremation, and devote what would have been normally spent on a fancy funeral service to a big party. He liked my idea that the party include as many friends and family members as possible, and that most of the time should be devoted to telling funny stories about our lives and enjoying each other’s company. After all, we figured, funerals weren’t for the dead, but for the living.
It was then that that sumbitch talked me into the arrangement that secured his place in history. With a couple of beers in each of us, we jokingly agreed, depending upon who died first, to be the social director for the other’s funeral. I solemnly shook hands with Ira and got us both another beer. Betty laughed when we told her of our pact, and we all figured that it would be a long time before we had to think about it again. Unfortunately for all of us, we were wrong.
A couple of weeks later, Betty called to tell me Ira was dead. As usual, he’d been taking his medicine sporadically, and it had caught up with him late one night in the form of a massive heart attack. With the weight of our pact on my shoulders, I made arrangements for a party large enough to accommodate Ira’s many friends, while Betty handled Ira’s cremation. Sad as I was, there was some comfort in seeing how many friends Ira had and how many volunteered to help me fix up the Neal house enough to fetch a decent price to help Betty and the kids move back to Kansas, where most of her family lived. The party itself started off subdued, but given the nature of Ira’s friends and the copious amounts of food and alcohol I’d arranged for, it got very lively - especially for a funeral.
I woke up in my house the next day with a hangover, and only a dim memory of the last few hours of the party. I headed downstairs to fix some breakfast, and that’s when I saw the vitamin bottle. Since Flintstones is not my brand of choice for vitamins, I figured that the bottle was not mine. Upon opening it and finding it half-full with gray ash about the consistency of beach sand, I realized I was wrong again. As I downed a handful of aspirins and sipped at my orange juice, the hazy memory of what I’d done began to return to me.
For reasons I still only dimly understand, I’d decided to ask Betty for a small amount of Ira’s ashes, and promised to try to stow them aboard the communications satellite I was working on. Betty had obliged, scooping a few tablespoons of Ira’s remains out of their cardboard urn and into the nearest container at hand. The Monday following the party, I took the ashes, still in the Flintstones vitamin jar, into work, put them in my desk drawer, and began to contemplate my next move.
I tried to imagine what it would take to make a container sufficiently secure to guarantee that none of the ashes would escape and possibly damage the spacecraft. I also speculated on the best way to secure the capsule in a concealed place where it would not be detected. After a few weeks of pondering, I had a few ideas for the design of the capsule, but no way to machine the parts. Worse yet, I’d gone over the mechanical drawings of the satellite and could not find a corner anywhere that would shelter a suspicious–looking chunk of metal from inquisitive eyes.
After a few more weeks of fruitless pondering, the project faded into the background of my busy life. Occasionally, however, my conscience would be aroused when I'd rummage around in my upper desk drawer for some long-lost tool or paper and stumble upon the Flintstones vitamin jar. Things went along like this for a year or so, and Ira’s ashes were nearly forgotten, until I was reassigned to the Mars Observer program.
Scheduled for launch in 1992, our plant was contracted to build the vehicle, or “bus”, that would place eight science experiments in orbit around Mars about a year later. While not as spectacular as a mission that actually landed, our craft was to be an inexpensive means of mapping the surface, sub-surface, and atmosphere of the planet for 23 months, an entire Martian year. With the data we’d send back from the camera, radar mapper, spectrometers, and other experiments, the scientists hoped to understand much more about Mars, its origins, and identify potentially important landing sites for future missions.
I found the vitamin jar while packing my desk to move over to the office where the Mars Observer team was working, and took it with me. For the next five years, the spacecraft progressed from a contract, to specifications, to plans, to a mountain of parts, and eventually to a vehicle under construction. And on the occasions I’d stumble over them, Ira’s ashes would stare accusingly from the back of the upper drawer.
It was on one of those occasions when a perverse notion came over me, and I thought to ask Nick about what it would take to stow some of Ira’s ashes aboard Mars Observer. Nick was a young mechanical engineer whom I worked with closely in putting the legitimate scientific payloads on the spacecraft. We’d become friends and I felt comfortable, at least hypothetically, discussing the plan with him.
I gave Nick a brief rundown on how Ira had ended up languishing in my desk and his face immediately to take on that far away look that comes to an engineer’s face when he or she discovers a solution to particularly difficult problem, or stumbles upon a design problem that especially captures the imagination. He agreed to think seriously about the matter and went away humming to himself.
A few weeks later, a small, A-size drawing showed up on my desk, entitled “3271128-503, I.R.A. Module.” The drawing showed a 1” hollow cube with a tight-fitting lid. Lord knows which shop order Nick used, but a few months after the drawing was done, the cube appeared on my desk, machined to spec, out of spacecraft-grade aluminum.
The plan, Nick informed me, was to stow Ira in a small notch he’d designed into a bracket that anchored the solar array boom to the spacecraft’s main structure. Being the thorough sort of fellow he was, Nick had created the notch as part of an effort to lighten the assembly, and had taken pains to analyze the changes for structural integrity. The assembly schedule of the spacecraft changed on a daily basis, but Nick estimated that we’d have an opportunity to access the bracket and insert the capsule just before the outer panels were attached some time in the following month.
All that remained for me was to encapsulate the ashes in a manner that would insure they posed no threat to the spacecraft or its mission. Having had time to think about this for some time, I went down to the “glop shop,” the lab where the epoxies, urethane compounds, adhesives, and other encapsulating agents were mixed. In return for the appropriate paperwork, the guy at the window to the lab handed me a large syringe full of Blue Solothane, a popular and reliable potting compound that is used for everything from securing components to PC boards to providing a moisture-resistant barrier in low-voltage transformer assemblies. The clear, viscous compound is tinted a cheerful blue color, giving it the appearance of icing for a fancy cake.
Ed, another friend, one of the few others I dared tell about this unauthorized “payload,” helped me prepare a mixing area back in the mechanical shop that sat behind the clean rooms where the spacecraft were housed. The Solothane took on a dirty blue color, and it faded to a bluish gray as I added about half of Ira’s ashes to the contents of the pot. The compounded ashes nearly filled the cube, leaving space for a layer of clear, unblemished Solothane to act as a gasket and prevent any stray ashes from escaping. Finally, the lid was secured and the “I.R.A. Assembly” was set aside for 24 hours to cure. We both smiled. Ira was ready to take his seat aboard Mars Observer.
On the night we finally went to put the cube in its designated location, Nick explained that we’d hit a small snag. It seems that things ran a bit ahead of schedule and the panel that covered the bracket where Ira was supposed to hide had been installed the other day. He told me not to worry as we suited up in the airlock. Being the conscientious engineer he was, Nick had several contingency plans. We sidled up to the “south” side of the spacecraft, exchanging greetings with the few technicians on duty that evening. The south side had not been “closed out” yet, which meant that its honeycomb aluminum external panels had not been attached. With them out of the way, we had free access to look for a new home for Ira.
Opportunity presented itself almost immediately. It seems that one of the reasons Nick had chosen the particular 1” form factor for the capsule was that similar sized, although solid, aluminum blocks were used in a variety of locations throughout the spacecraft. One of the principle functions they served was to support and secure some of the large wire bundles that comprised the spacecraft’s wire harness. We found a likely location where a fat bundle looped close to the spacecraft’s structure. Nick epoxied a small metal tab to one end of our cube before gluing the other end to the spacecraft.
After the glue set, Nick laced the wire bundle to the tab on Ira’s cube using the standard-issue harness floss employed for such purposes throughout the spacecraft. With the seam of its lid facing the interior of the spacecraft, the capsule looked like one of the other cubes performing similar functions throughout the vehicle.
Ira had just moved up from stowaway to a working member of the program.
Months later, on September 26, 1992, I stood on the causeway at Cape Canaveral, counting down the last few minutes before the Titan III rocket lofted our spacecraft into low Earth orbit where its upper stage would put it on a trajectory for Mars. I was wearing a t-shirt that I’d designed and had made to commemorate the launch. Our launch team had ordered up a gross of these special shirts, emblazoned with the Mars Observer logo, and a few symbols that had become our icons.
The shirt’s breast pocket sported a small green Martian, the program’s mascot. The back of the shirt featured a picture of the spacecraft, draped with a cartoon of a sensually posed female that was the trademark for a local strip club that was legendary for its hospitality to visiting launch teams. Printed on the right sleeve was a hand with crossed fingers, the launch director’s expression of all our hopes and fears for this fateful day. Other than the manager-types who wore suits and ties, almost all the rest of staff supporting the program arrived the morning of the launch wearing the t-shirt.
My shirt was one of another dozen that I’d added one more symbol to. On the sleeve under the crossed fingers were two words, printed in bold letters: “GO IRA!” Back in the launch control complex, Nick wore his GO IRA shirt as well.
The launch was one of the high points of my life. Watching six years of my team’s work roar aloft on a pillar of fire is as indelibly etched in my brain as the birth of my daughter. Other than a thirty-minute period where we held our collective breath until a hiccup in the spacecraft’s telemetry stream fixed itself, the launch, and subsequent trans-Mars injection burn, went off by the numbers.
Ira was finally on his way.
After I got back from Florida, I mailed the remaining GO IRA shirts to Betty, having selected sizes that she, the kids, and Thelma, Ira’s mom, could wear. I included a note explaining how I’d finally kept the promise I made years earlier, and asked them to keep the news to themselves until Mars Observer was safely in operation around Mars. I think I still have the sweet note from Thelma somewhere, thanking me for my efforts in her son’s memory.
The eleven months it took the spacecraft to reach Mars went by smoothly, with only minor glitches along the way. I was looking forward to getting the word out about the first man to Mars once the spacecraft fired its retro-rockets and set up housekeeping at Mars. Sadly, all our efforts came to nothing when it disappeared three days before it got to Mars while pressurizing its fuel system for the retro burn.
The months of tests that I and hundreds of other put in after Mars Observer’s disappearance identified the most likely source of the problem to be a ruptured fuel line caused by a badly specified fuel valve. Our analysis showed that the valve could, under certain conditions, create sparks that would ignite the hypergolic propulsion fuel before it entered the engine itself. Once the fuel line ruptured, it would set off a horrific chain of events that could cripple our spacecraft within minutes and render it inoperative before it could even signal for help.
Although the official inquiry solved the problem with the fuel system, and allowed a sister craft, the Mars Global Surveyor, to successfully arrive at Mars a few years later, I’ve kept this story to myself for all these years. I guess that my silence was in part for fear of retribution from NASA, and in part because I figured nobody would believe me. I’m still not sure what has motivated me to put this all down now, except for the fact that the story needed to be told some time or another.
I often still think of Mars Observer, its passenger, and what has become of it. Without the braking rockets to slow it down, I’m told Mars Observer most likely continued along the heliocentric orbit that it had followed to Mars, and flies back past the planet roughly every two years. It’s sort of silly, but I like to imagine Ira waving at Mars when he makes that biennial rendezvous.
*While this is a true story, certain names have been altered to shield the identities of friends who aided me in this project from prying eyes. Also, I have taken the liberty of simplifying my description of a few of the non-essential circumstances in this narrative in an attempt to streamline the story enough that it did not overly tax the credulity or patience of the reader. Neither of these actions detracts in any way from the essential facts of how Ira Neal became the first (to my knowledge) passenger aboard an interplanetary spacecraft from Earth.
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