Pulp.net - Rocket

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Mark Rowe
“A rocket is a bomb with a hole in one end.”
Burt Rutan

One morning, Hester Connolly went down to his studio and stared at his work for an hour. He found it incomprehensible. There were two paintings and one sculpture, in progress, and none of them held any meaning for him. This ambush was unprecedented, and he was bewildered and fearful. It was a complete loss of faith. After that long pause, he gathered himself, fixed his sight on one painting, and tried to articulate what he saw: waste, decadence, evil. Something familiar, invisible, something he had ignored previously. Almost swooning, he started to take the painting apart.

First he attacked the shapes: impure, chaotic, corrupt. He cut them out, flattened them, straightened shaky lines, perfected the curve, sliced the cleanest edge. He stood back: they warped, danced, inflated and consumed. That was far from right.

He went upstairs to the kitchen, made a strong black coffee and drinking it too quickly, almost burning his mouth. Back downstairs, he went for the colours now. He separated the hues, gave them all recipes and codes, then pasted them to the shapes, bounded them clear and pure and apart. He stood back: Christ. Even worse. He wondered if it was something inside him that needed cutting out. He wondered if was losing his mind. He did not sleep much that night, his mind full of the mess he had made in the basement.

Hester was a handsome and successful artist. Tall, slightly ungainly, with big hands, grey-streaked black hair, pale blue eyes and a foreshortened nose, he was recognised as a man of integrity and pragmatism. His dedication in following the pure line and shade was almost universally admired. His Death of the Constructivist was an acknowledged masterpiece, a poignant marker of the limits of a certain mode of thought. The purity in his work, and his spartan, disciplined approach to creation was softened by modesty and personal kindness. Few begrudged him his financial success and acclaim, and his benefactor considered him the most valuable of his artists. His politics were impeccable. But, looking at his work that morning, he’d felt nothing but emptiness. He was almost forty years old, and suddenly, his work felt fraudulent. With that sensation came depression, sleeplessness and exhaustion. As he could not articulate what had changed, he kept this calamity secret even from his wife. Valerie saw this, of course, but knew better than to push him. She trusted him implicitly. He would work it out.

All those shapes and colours he had played with, all those lines, the words he and his exhibitors used to justify them, it was all shit. How had he been so thoroughly deluded? Or had he lost whatever vision he had to condemned to creative senility and death?

His salvation came from the television late one night, two months on from the loss. It was a documentary about the Apollo missions to the moon. When he was small, he had been fascinated by space travel, and as the programme progressed, this long dormant enthusiasm was hauled back into the light. Each mention of a technical aspect of the spacecraft, each shot of a rocket rising on flame, each invocation of an astronaut’s name increased Hester’s excitement which pierced the vale of insomnia that had enveloped him. The inspiration was vague, but it was the first hope he had felt since that morning, and it was enough. For the first night in two months he rested, tiredness overtaking his excitement.

The next morning, he set to work on a painting. He started with sketches, but was so eager to progress that he had abandoned the pencils for the brush by the middle of the morning. He worked fast and impatiently, fierce and reckless strokes marking new purpose to his lines and planes. He worked through lunchtime to tea, then went upstairs, paint flecked and blushing. His wife didn’t remark on this, but was pleased for him. He had lunch with her and their son, and they talked about the silly little things they always preferred talking about, Hester once again enjoying the chat. No more was there a need to suck in his bilious guts and disguise a hole inside him; his head was full of colour and altering configurations again.

When he went back to the basement, however, he knew it wasn’t right yet. He felt no panic this time. It was a giant leap in the right direction. What was important was that this work had a point. The painting was an inadequate, glorious failure, but it was now clear where he had to do. Hester had to build a space rocket.

As this was an extraordinary artistic venture, he spent time rationalising why his latest artwork would be a rocket propelled vehicle. The honesty of the endeavour was the most obvious reason. The job would require ingenuity, graft, expense and deep contemplation, the measures of which were in proportion to the gravity of the project: to escape confines and explore beyond. The logic of his thunderbolt was not far behind either. He had moved from depiction of the external to depiction of the internal, then, having drained himself thoroughly, had bypassed depiction for invention and movement. This artwork would do something.

His studies were ferocious and intense; he sought out a library of books and television programmes on space exploration, and at night he searched the internet for information, often using unusual keywords to seek out data, invaluable insights he might have otherwise missed. He became fixated with the commercial space.
To Valerie, Hester seemed at his most contented. She sensed the breakthrough he was after and understood that her husband deserved her support for such an immense undertaking. She worried, but blamed this on irrationality. He knew what he was doing. This they both understood. And young Charlie was over the moon with the adventure.

An early decision was to reject the ballistic rocket design. He agreed with Rutan in that choice; the brute roman candle model was an act of panic, cowardice and lack of imagination induced by the fear of Soviet conquest of space. His design would be elegant, intelligent and pretty. He would effortlessly slice the sky, rather than punch an ugly hole in it. He would build a rocket plane.

Rutan’s launcher aeroplane, White Knight, was indeed very beautiful, an appropriate forbearer of the rocket ship, but the ship itself, SpaceShipOne, was a stubby compromise. Hester wanted to surpass that achievement in the vital areas: speed, aesthetics, distance; he needed orbital flight. From old blueprints, engineering scribbles, photocopied journals, dreams, and atheist séances, he drew out his own design; it was truly his own inspired vision.

Hester’s benefactor was not alarmed by his proposal. Rather, the radical force of the concept charged his imagination. No collector would have anything to compare to this! Within minutes of hearing Hester’s idea he was picturing himself in the club, dropping tiny hints about the magnitude of his favourite artist’s latest opus. The benefactor called him a genius and paid the funds upfront. ‘Use Marvin for the new computer though, Hester; he gets the best deals.’

To impress upon himself the magnitude of the task, Hester set aside an hour every day to meditate on the sacrificial antecedents of his efforts. He thought of Joe Walker, one of the pioneers of hypersonic flight, killed on a pointless photo-shoot for General Electric, turbulence flipping his F-104 over and into an XB-70, the bomber’s vertical stabiliser cutting his cockpit and flight helmet in two before he disappeared in flames. He thought of the Apollo 1 trio choking to death in their burning capsule. He thought of Rothko banging his head against the wall in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. He thought of the last X-15 flight and its final zoom, sweep, spin and disintegration, Major Mike Adams trapped inside.

The work soon proved too large for his studio and his shed. Fortunately, his benefactor had a prepared space in a warehouse following a falling out with another of his artists. Given Hester’s prominence, it was natural this important new work be completed in this pristine, practical space. The acoustics in the room were incredible, and this proved vital to Hester’s new methods. If something did not sound right, when moulded, stamped, cut or fitted, then it was not worthy.

Hester obsessed over the materials. He consulted engineering journals and sought out experts on aviation and metallurgy, using his benefactor and his contacts to compile a list for each component. Of course, technical feasibility was not the only requirement. For instance, his work required a connection to history and past explorations, so he incorporated tiny fragments of famous antecedents. Only now did he realise what a useful tool the internet was.

He ordered a shard taken from the crash site of Adams’s fatal X-15, which came with a certificate in a glass frame that he had to smash to retrieve the metal. From the same supplier he bought a similar piece from the wreck of Chuck Yeager’s hot-rod NF-104A that went into a flat spin and almost killed the pilot. And from sources that were surprisingly easy to locate, he retrieved a jagged bit of heat-resistant tile from the Columbia shuttle disaster. He melted the metal and smashed the tile and mixed these with steel alloy to form the chrome-plated control stick.

It wasn’t all metal and plastic, though. He softened the cold technology with discrete use of wood and fine cloth. The leather pilot’s seat inside was his favourite touch. Whenever he doubted his vision, he climbed into it and heard it sigh and grumble as he lay back and rested his foot on the varnished oak floor of the cockpit.

When he came home at night, he lay awake thinking of the desert from the Mexican border through California, Arizona, Nevada, and Dreamland, the fitting call-sign of Area 51, one of the many secret places off the maps of that vast expanse of hard, sun-baked earth. The silence there would be holy, only broken by sonic booms and explosions ridiculously high in the sky. That was where his work would belong, the place of ignition, endeavour and ascendance. The work was not ready for a pilgrimage yet, but perhaps some day...

The fuel proved the most expensive component. His benefactor was reluctant to pay for this as, after all, surely rocket fuel was unnecessary for a piece of installation art. Surely they could fill it with scented water and tell people that it was rocket fuel?

After his initial shock at his benefactor’s bad faith, Hester explained that this would be a lie he could not be part of, that he would walk away from the project were fuel not to be provided. His benefactor was hurt, and did not understand this stubbornness, but he recognised Hester’s genius and promised him the required funds. The fuel arrived in large pressurised cylinders that had to be lifted by a small crane through the space’s window. The nervous-looking supplier explained that the cans were very thick, but care should be taken of the valves. Should Hester hear any funny noises, he should contact the supplier immediately. ‘May I enquire what you need this fuel for?’ asked the supplier.

In love with the shiny cylinders, Hester replied, ‘For my rocket plane.’

‘I thought you were an artist.’

Hester found the nervous man annoying, but tried his best to be polite.

‘Yes, but I will also be a pilot.’

The leading edge of the wing caused the most mental effort and pain. It had to be aerodynamically fit, of course, but it had to express something of the adventure. It needed to evoke the spirits of exploration, innovation and sacrifice. He had no idea how to go about this logically, once he had the basic attack, so he followed the pens in his hands, using different pens and paints in an odd kind of divination. He had hundreds of pages of iterations of the profile, most close to indistinguishable, but he realised only one would be right, so he made himself memorise them. Over those weeks he suffered from terrible headaches. But when he made his final judgement, his certainty lifted his spirits higher than they had ever been. It was a simple school HB pencil that proved the winning tool.

When he was alone, on occasion he found himself praying during construction. Not to a supernatural god, he didn’t believe in such magic. His mumbled words were not the usual craven requests and praises of the religious. They were the names of famous pilots, Soviet artists, engineers and aircraft, equations of lift, thrust, thermodynamics and entropy, dates of famous exploits, invented rhymes about space travel and perfect trajectories. To an intelligent listener their purpose was clear. He was reinforcing his belief and coating his creation with it. It would be his re-entry shield.

At night, he liked to listen to it. Certain components were designed to fit tightly only when put under the extreme heat of hypersonic travel, and the work was full of materials designed to change shape and colour at different temperatures for abstruse reasons, some that even Hester did not fully understand. He employed divination and fluke in his design, reasoning that his subconscious would control certain aspects. Therefore, the craft creaked at night as the space grew cold, lubricants dripped, and there was an odd pinging sound in the dark that he could never identify but knew was appropriate. Sometimes, he imagined the sound of the engine, that massive rumble that mimicked blood in the eardrums, only amplified to shocking volume.

To make the engine, he used steel, rubber and magic. He designed it in a night of high fever and intoxication, locking himself in the space.

The event was entitled Ignition Test 1. The opening party was expensive and excessive, but that was the choice of the benefactor, and Hester was too full of joy to object. His rocket plane was dark blue, like the Bluebird cars and boats that broke speed records and powered some of his most rich pre-teenage fantasies. No markings were over the blue. Not for him the crude emblems and flags of patriots. This work was universal, it was for all. The cockpit was a perfect round bubble of clear unblemished perspex, with a retractable dark blue hood for protection. The controls were limited to a chrome stick and a bright red start button the size and shape of a clown’s nose. The polished mahogany instrument panel showed only a speed dial. Otherwise, all surfaces were clean.

He had told Valerie to stay at home with Charlie. ‘You know how much you hate these bloody things.’ Her protests were waved down. As much as he wanted his family to see his achievement, he knew how risky such launches could be. It was not a safe environment: one would find oneself talking to journalists, politicians, guiltless industrialists and artists. He didn’t like any of these people.

The space fell silent. The guests were under strict instruction, passed down from Hester to the benefactor, then via the fine calligraphy of the opening notes. He held his old leather flying helmet in his hand and stood on the short ladder to the cockpit.

‘The accusation is that space is full of nothing. But I say we just haven’t gone far enough, and to go further we must go faster - it is speed we are lacking. That is what this work tries to address, although it is a mere prototype. Escape velocity is a term that should be applied beyond our atmosphere; we need to overtake our previous attempts and accelerate beyond the concerns of government and bureaucracy. There is void out there, but there is beauty in that space too, stars, gases, rock, energy, matter pulling together and pulling apart.

‘Simplicity of design is as key here as it is in the bottle opener or the kettle. What you see before you addresses the riddles of take-off and re-entry: surfaces, speed and airflow. My attempt is to make the simplest, most beautiful and most elegant craft, and the fastest. This work lays out a future for speed, a liberation from our bourgeois relationship with our chairs, desks and beds. And an escape from entropy.

‘This is an evocation of the Industrial Age, when we competed to carry ourselves across the greatest of distances at the greatest of speeds. Nowadays, we let the electron do all our movement; we are tangled up in fibre-optic cables and chat rooms that exist only to complain in. There is no achievement in that, no heroism. I want a return to amazement, awe and acceleration. I want us to move.

‘Every line, angle, surface and part of this work has been made to embody this wish. My engine is a work of brute elegance; the flame it will expel will create a blue-white streak that will sear the retina and electrify the imagination. And the old-age brutality of propulsion is offset by the modernity of the shapes and materials that make up the body and the interior.’

His voice was hoarse. He hated explaining himself, but he had to honour his benefactor. He was not used to talking at such length. They were all looking at him and not the craft. They should look at the craft, he thought; he didn’t matter.

‘I have little else to say. This is my work, I hope that you like it. This is where I feel art should go.’

Although they applauded enthusiastically, some even cheering, he had a sorrowful suspicion that they didn’t get it. He put on the helmet and climbed into the cockpit. The quiet hydraulic hiss as the bubble sealed satisfied all.

He pressed the red button. In the engine, the fuel mixed with the oxygen, the spark lit the fuel, the fuel burned the rubber, and the newborn gases pushed out in every direction through the engine, the fuselage and the space. And in that instant of explosion and the annihilation of himself, the craft, the space, and those within it, Hester experienced rapture. Total, complete, glorious. The fireball incinerated the guests, the journalists and his benefactor; it collapsed the floor beneath them, propelled shiny blue metal fragments into the walls, and extended an arm of flame over the Thames that retreated back into the gallery before the sound of ignition smashed a thousand windows.

© Mark Rowe 2005