A Halloween Nightmare in Mojave

Alsbury_Plaque
It was raining in the desert. It was coming down in buckets.

A cold, hard rain was slamming against the windows of the house. The first real rain since….I couldn’t even remember. That’s how rare rain is out here. Months and months go by with little or no rainfall.

It’s hard to explain to outsiders how amazing rain is out here. Dark clouds blot out the normally blue skies and hug the mountain peaks that lie west of town. The skies open up and flood the parched, desolate landscape with life sustaining water while releasing a musky scent of creosote from the plants that cover the desert floor.

The rain was normally soft. To hear the pitter-patter of rain gently hitting the roof and the ground outside after months of hearing nothing at all can be magical. It’s a natural soundtrack to which I have drifted off to sleep on many rainy nights.

But, tonight was different. I was too wired to sleep. At least not just yet. I sat at my laptop on Nov. 1, 2014, trying to make sense of the crash of SpaceShipTwo and the death of Mike Alsbury.

It had been the accident I had worried for most of the year. My fears crowded out other thoughts when I was awake, and disturbed my sleep at night. Two weeks before the crash, I had told two friends visiting from LA about my worst fear: that I would be standing out by Koehn Lake watching pieces of SpaceShipTwo crashing to the desert floor all around me.

And now it had happened, pretty much as I had envisioned it. And on Halloween, of all days. The day we dress up as our worst fears and mock the death and eternal grave that await us all in the end.

I wasn’t surprised by the accident. But, the experienced of seeing it, and finding Alsbury’s body still strapped into his seat on the side of Cantil Road, left me rattled to my core. And I still didn’t know what had actually happened or why.

The only thing comparable to the shock I felt now was my experience during the 9/11 attacks. I lived in a 10th floor corner apartment in Arlington, Va., with a clear view of the Pentagon. I watched that building burn less than 2 miles away all day and well into the night. It was still burning the next morning.

I figured writing might help me clear my head. So, I sat down at laptop and began to compose a blog post:

It’s just after midnight here in Mojave. The past 14 hours have been traumatic for everyone here, for reasons I need not explain.

Friday started out as a typical fall day here. Cool with clear skies and a light breeze. Perfect flying weather.

But, sometime just after 10 o’clock in the morning, something went terribly wrong in the skies over the desert. The pride of a still nascent commercial space industry came apart high in the air for reasons still as yet unknown, falling to Earth in pieces. One brave test pilot died, another struggled to survive.

He was not the first pilot to die in these skies. Many military and civilian test pilots preceded him, putting their lives on the line flying experimental aircraft. It takes a special kind of person to take those risks, and to accept the consequences that go with them. We must never forget their bravery and courage.

My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone at Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and The Spaceship Company who lost a colleague and friend today. And my deepest condolences to his family. Let us all pray that the injured pilot recovers.

I was deeply shaken by what I saw today. What they are experiencing must be a million times worse. And I can’t even imagine that.

There are several theories about what caused this tragedy. Was it the new propulsion system? A structural failure? Or something else nobody saw coming?

That answer will come with time. The NTSB knows what it’s doing.

Healing will take much longer.

Friday began bright and sunny, a day full of promise that quickly brought tragedy. As I write this early on Saturday, a cold hard rain is lashing at my windows. That’s a good thing. We need it.

And it feels right. The sky is crying, adding to an ocean of tears shed here today.

It was 1 a.m. by the time I made it into bed. I had been able to sleep on the night of 9/11 even with the Pentagon burning not far away and the fear that DC — or some other city — could be hit again before I awoke the next morning.

However, that day had been so strange and surreal — something unprecedented that literally came out of a clear blue sky — that I went to bed with the vague hope that I would awake to find it was just a bad dream. This time it was different.

I closed my eyes as my head sank into the pillow. My body was exhausted, but my mind was not ready to rest.

Out of the darkness created by my eyelids came a motley assortment of creatures walking as a group toward me. Skeletons, corpses, Frankenstein, the Grim Reaper….every Halloween monster that lurked somewhere in my subconscious was coming at me. They weren’t the “hey great costume” variety monsters. They seemed real. And open for business.

When I opened my eyes, they vanished. But when I closed them again, they reappeared. Dreaming these things was one thing; when they invade your waking thoughts, it’s quite another.

I lay awake all night until dawn, hoping to pass out as I replayed the events of the previous day in my mind. This was one night where the gentle Mojave rain would not lull me to sleep.

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