Dangerous Expensive Principles

Entry by: Alobear

6th January 2017
An elbow jabbed me in the side and I looked up from my lunch. There was a young man standing on the other side of the table, his arm outstretched.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Neil. I just wanted to say how grateful we are for what you’re doing, and how much we appreciate all the hard work you’re putting in.”

He had an open, friendly face, and his smile was sweet.

Confused, I rose slightly and shook his hand.

“Uh, you’re welcome,” I said.

He nodded to Mary Lou, sitting next to me, and moved on to the next table.

“Who was that?” I hissed to my companion.

She laughed.

“Oh, Stella, you are a riot! That was Neil Armstrong. He’s one of the astronauts. You know, going to the moon?” She reached out and knocked gently on the top of my head. “You have heard about the Apollo 11 mission, haven’t you?”

I was too amazed to respond to her mockery. Neil Armstrong, here at the factory? Why would he take the time to come all the way out here to speak to little old ladies like us? And he seemed like such a nice young man. It was difficult to believe that he would soon be fired off into space. I saw his smile again in my mind’s eye and imagined him so far away from all his loved ones, up in the cold darkness. I shivered.

Mary Lou nudged me again.

“What’s with you today?” she asked. “Break’s over. Back to the grindstone, I’m afraid.”

I shoveled in a last mouthful of food, then stood and followed Mary Lou to the hatch where we dumped our lunch trays. Then it was back to our work station. We sat down on either side of the unit we were working on to pick up where we’d left off before lunch.

Spools of copper wire lay at our feet, ready to be threaded through or around the tiny magnetic cores on the unit. I selected the appropriate wire, referred to the plan, and passed it carefully through its assigned slot for Mary Lou to grab from the other side. She lined it up to the next core and sent it back in my direction.

The work was the worst combination of intricately complex and mind-numbingly dull. I kept thinking of Neil Armstrong, and the others who would be flying up to the moon with him. Their very lives might depend on the work I was doing. It made me feel important, and terrified.

I was already very well aware just how much time, effort and money was being pumped into the Apollo program. The nation’s global reputation was on the line, too. But now, there was an actual human face attached, and it made the potential consequences of any mistakes that much more real to me.

That polite young man was someone’s son, perhaps someone’s wife or father. I had sons of my own, and knew how worried I’d be if they were embarking on such a dangerous journey. I didn’t think Neil Armstrong’s mother would know about the rope memory we were building from computer programming first principles. But I knew it would eventually form part of the navigation system of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. I also knew I would want anyone working on it to pay very close attention, if I was an astronaut’s mother.

I bent my head over my work, and redoubled my concentration.