Shaffer: Cary man’s remains soar into the final frontier

May 28, 2012 


A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft blasts off, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, from Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX is the first private company to build a rocket for a mission to the International Space Station. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)


— When they were little, the Martin girls would watch rockets launch from the sands of a Florida beach, feeling the ground shake, watching the fireball fade to a dot in the sky, knowing their dad had helped aim those spaceships at the moon.

He worked at Cape Kennedy, a mechanical engineer for the Apollo flights, one of the tense, workaholic men pacing the smoke-filled rooms, wires running everywhere, desks piled with clutter.

So when Tom Martin died in Cary at age 73, his daughter arranged a posthumous tribute. They paid to have his ashes loaded aboard a private rocket and launched into space, orbiting the Earth in a grand farewell.

On Tuesday, Alice Gilliland returned to that Florida shoreline and watched the night sky turn sunrise-orange as her dad shot skyward.

“If I could picture my Dad going to heaven, that’s how I would picture him going,” she said. “The whole sky lit up. It was the most glorious thing I’ve ever seen. I’m going to cry now, but the whole sky lit up.”

For a week, the world has buzzed over the famous people with ashes onboard the SpaceX Dragon, the privately funded rocket with a red dot on its tip: Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, James “Scotty” Doohan of “Star Trek.”

But the rocket carried more than 300 people’s remains inside its second stage, all of whom spent their lives with a gaze turned to the stars. On that beach in Florida, Gilliland joined a sort of space reunion, 100-odd cousins from an era when the heavens really were a final frontier, unexplored, unseen, dreamed about.

When Jeannette Martin met her husband, he would drive from Cape Kennedy to Orlando to pick her up for dates – a 120-mile round trip. Once married, she could watch the launches from a boat on the Indian River with the other space wives, getting a better view.

His work was wrapped up in America’s identity. Launching a rocket in the 1960s gripped the country like winning Olympic gold.

“It was really important to beat the Russians,” recalled Jeannette, who taught fifth grade both in Florida and in Cary. “Science was really important. Sputnik had gone up. We had to beat them to the moon.”

But growing up in Titusville, Fla., you didn’t gain any notoriety by having a dad who worked in the space program – no more than having a dad in Raleigh who works in RTP. So you didn’t always appreciate having an up-close seat for a moon shot.

“Everybody’s dad worked there,” said daughter Patti Martin. “If somebody’s dad didn’t work there, that was more interesting. It was like, ‘Your dad’s a janitor? Awesome.’ We went to Apollo Elementary. Our principal was Mr. Moon.”

Their dad never let on how nervous he was in the control center, how nobody knew whether the lunar module would crash-land, or whether they’d get the astronauts back to Earth. He never let on about those nerves until years later, after the family had moved to Cary and Martin was working for Aeroglide, not long before he died in 2005.

It took seven years for the space flight to happen. Even once the Martins knew a definite date, the launch was canceled five times. Only Alice was able to stay in Florida long enough to see it, and she spent the moments furiously texting her sisters, calling her mother, too riveted by the spectacle to take pictures.

“We joke that my Dad would have been horrified that we spent so much money,” Patti Martin said. (Orbital flights start at $2,995.) “He was very unsentimental about that kind of thing.”

In the next few days, the Martins will learn whether the rocket piece will stay in space for a short time or enter a higher orbit, which could potentially keep Martin’s remains up there for two centuries.

Either way, now a family that has always looked at the stars a little differently has greater reason to let their gaze linger. Dad is up there somewhere.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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