Alan Clive’s world went dark in his early 20s. He never saw his kids or the neighborhoods he lived in after he left Detroit, or the office at a federal agency where he’d show up and change people’s lives.
Deep space, though? He could see that as well as anyone. Or better, really, because distant planets are the stuff of imagination, and his was burnished by the soaring stories of the greatest writers of science fiction.
Wednesday afternoon, Clive slipped the surly bonds of Earth’s atmosphere and experienced space for himself. Some of his ashes did, anyway, and his son is as certain as gravity that he’s relishing the ride.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Michael Clive, 37. “I’m sure he’s loving it.”
A gram or two of what had been the remarkable Alan Clive was packed as cargo aboard an Orbitech satellite lifted through the clouds by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Picture a cylinder the width of a roll of quarters housed in a rectangle the size of a microwave oven, describing a north-south orbit for roughly 10 years, crossing over every point on Earth as the planet spins beneath it.
Michael and the rest of Alan’s family were in Cocoa Beach, Florida, for liftoff, watching what had once seemed the stuff of fantasy.
They had been thinking, he said, of the books that had been a centerpiece of Alan’s life, and became the soundtrack of their own.
Robert Heinlein. Ray Bradbury. Isaac Asimov. Alan Clive read all the classic authors and a meteor shower of lesser ones until unfortunate genetics and the clumsy techniques of early surgeries left him with permanently detached retinas.
All he did after that was earn a Ph.D. from Michigan, become a history professor, write a book about Michigan in World War II and detour to a 23-year career in the civil rights office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, making sure people with disabilities had the same support as everyone else during natural disasters.
And, of course, he continued to absorb science fiction, mostly through an early home scanning machine that read aloud in a tinny voice that sounded appropriately like a B-movie robot.
In Alan’s final moments in 2008, Michael and his sister Misha read to him from one of his grade-school favorites, a 1952 juvenile novel called “Stairway to Danger.”
They thought the familiar story might ease the transition for him, Michael said. It surely smoothed theirs.
Flying cargo for first-class fare
Alan’s voyage into space was more free enterprise than Starship Enterprise.
After he died at 64 of prostate cancer, his children contracted with a company called Celestis to deposit some of their father’s ashes on the moon, a service that starts today at $12,500.
Plans for the Vulcan Centaur rocket that was supposed to carry the load for a company called United Launch Alliance were announced in 2014, but it still hasn’t gone into service. Michael had put down a deposit in 2012, and after he’d waited for a decade, Celestis suggested rerouting some of Alan’s remains to the less ambitious expedition.
He and Misha, 40, thought that seemed fine. At 2:35 p.m. Wednesday, it looked and sounded spectacular.
The rocket stands nearly 230 feet tall, “but we could just make it out on the horizon from about 10 miles away,” Michael said. “Then once those engines lit, you couldn’t see anything else in the world but that rocket. It’s the brightest damned thing you ever saw in your life.”
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The second stage kept going into space, with its payload of small satellites and the ashes of 47 people. The first stage turned around and came home. As it touched down, a sonic boom rippled across the landscape.
You couldn’t have written it any better.
A distinctive path
Alan Clive grew up west of Palmer Park at 14425 Curtis St. in Detroit. His kids were born near D.C., but they know the address because their dad rubber-stamped it in the books he particularly treasured.
Judy Goldwasser, of Bloomfield Township, who went to Winship Elementary School with him and remained in loose contact across the decades, said he “radiated brilliance and, possibly because of that and the thick glasses he wore, he always seemed a bit different from the rest of us.”
Still, she said, he was open, friendly and dryly funny. “We always knew he was headed toward a different path than ours,” but in the 1950s, no one could have predicted the path would include orbit.
His children shared his passion for the stars, and Michael also inherited his poor vision. “I’m not blind,” he said, “because there’s better surgery now.”
A computer graphics manager in Castro Valley, California, he actually worked for SpaceX for a few years, though that was more happenstance than ambition. Misha lives in Rockville, Maryland, and works in clean energy.
Their father taught them about the solar system, Michael said, about the power of imagination, and about courage — not superhero stuff, but the everyday kind where you “repeat things you need to do time and again to move forward and to act in the moment.”
They watched him shape his world, even if he couldn’t see it, and they feel pretty strongly that Wednesday, they gave him a stunning new view.
Reach Neal Rubin at NARubin@freepress.com, or via Twitter at @nealrubin_fp.