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Into and Out of Earth’s Shadow

My father, an aerospace engineer, wrote of the same problem that caused the Beresheet crash in a language that touched my soul

“In the beginning, God created…” from Beresheet 1:1

“Into and out of earth’s shadow,” Irv Brown, 1982 Patent application

A memory floated across my recollection as Israel’s Beresheet lander was unable to right herself and tumbled into the surface of the moon and started a journey I wish I was better able to make: to understand the process of discovery, to see Israel lifted up, but mostly, to talk to my father just one more time. I was awed to find an open door to all three.

I grew up with space launches. My father, was an aerospace engineer (his job title) or “rocket scientist”, or “Irv Brown, Boy Engineer” as he liked to joke. He started in the late 50’s and early ’60’s with weather satellites and ended as chief engineer of communications and video systems for Apollo moon landings, the first Viking Mars lander and satellites all around the globe. The Beresheet crash, the day after his birthday, reminded me of a similar failure in one of my father’s early projects and led me to something he had written, an insight tucked in a long forgotten patent that he could never have known I’d discover.

Today, the magnificent early projects he worked on aren’t much remembered. Does anyone remember Nimbus? It was a big deal in 1964 when that satellite first orbited the earth and sent back pictures of the calm or raging atmospheres that gave forecasters an unprecedented view of earth. Those early space flights had numerous failures. I remember Dad used to fly to California for the launches, and would come home to New Jersey with exotic San Francisco sourdough bread and sometimes looking glum after the rockets would end up in the ocean. Chin up, Beresheet!

Even after shining successes there was often darkness. Dad used a saying that I repeat about project related work: “your job is to work yourself out of a job”. Every project ends and so he was left hoping his efforts would be deemed worthy to build on, that the program would not be axed or a new project would be developed. Though there were uncertain times around the dinner table, continue they did, to the moon, to Mars and back.

Israel’s Beresheet lander ended up crashing because the booster rockets didn’t have enough power or time to right her. Spacecraft design is a balancing act between the weight of all the needed communications systems, solar arrays, antennas, guidance and propulsion hardware you can cram in and still get off the ground, slingshot around earth and reach your target. It’s exactly what went wrong for my father in 1984 with the GStar communications satellite. The small boosters used to correct its orientation didn’t have enough juice to get it into the right orbit. It wobbled around earth, rendered useless for nine months of slide rule whiz kids on earth patiently instructing the little craft to spritz her tiny jets to nudge her onto the right path. Poor little Beresheet had only minutes. She stumbled and fell.

Model of GStar given to my father by RCA, which sits on a shelf in my office, along with models of the Mars Viking lander and other satellites

While looking into these memories, I bounced between books in print and articles online. Then, like stumbling on the Dead Sea Scrolls, I found something Dad had written thirty seven years ago in a patent application for a device which could overcome the forces of space raging to snuff out connection with earth. Buried in the pages of the technical patent language is a more literary narrative that included this:

…A communication satellite is subject to temperature changes as its exposure to the sun changes during its orbit or as its internal power dissipation changes. These changes occur slowly and predictably; the solar inputs change both diurnally and seasonally, and the internal power dissipation changes occur by ground command. Under normal operating conditions, the solar effects are the dominant ones. During eclipse seasons and at the vernal and autumnal equinox periods, additional, more abrupt, changes occur as the satellite moves into and out of the earth’s shadow. Patent application, Irving Brown, 1982

“Into and out of earth’s shadow”. Poetry from a patent. Both the burden and the reward of creating something new, in a voice I truly love, gone now fourteen years.

Wild swings in temperature, seasons, eclipses, the very moods of the heavens were warring to shut down any hope of connecting. He was writing this in 1981-2. I was 27. He was talking about the seemingly impossible task of connecting distant points. Dad and I had navigated our relationship through my rebellious teens and early twenties to the happiness of mutual respect. I never thought of him as a “communicator” during my strident years but never thought he didn’t want to break through. His father, a Jewish tailor, was sent alone from Latvia, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He died when my father was ten, but growing up in the 1930’s were not years of self absorption, self awareness, self reflection. He never talked about his feelings or the isolation of those years. In WW2, he had been part of the liberation of Buchenwald but never talked about that either until much later. Yet there was the guy who did his own auto repair, lawn care, and home renovations, perfecting a way to connect everyone on earth, if only a tiny craft bristling with electronic wizardry, solar cells and gyroscopes hurtling at 7,000 miles per hour 26,199 miles from earth, on the circular tightrope that balanced gravity with centrifugal force, intense temperature swings, and eclipses, could focus a line of communication to a tiny spot on earth to link souls reaching out one to another.

Hearing his voice reminded me that the golden moments of success, joy, and soft landings at a hoped for goal rest on a pedestal of spectacular failures and years of patient effort. And along the way, surprising discoveries. So keep at it, little country, I for one am proud of your mighty journey. “Moving into and out of earth’s shadow”, like you Israel, maligned yet held in awe, failing, succeeding, in darkness and in light.

Beresheet, may you rise again and triumph!

About the Author
Steve Brown is an architect who studied at the University of Pennsylvania with professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture and environmental design. He has headed an an architecture and construction firm since 1982 in the Philadelphia, PA area.
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