Postcard — May 1, 2018, 11:36 am

The Real Thing

A visit to the space coast

Photograph by the author

We sailed over a bridge and onto the island, entering a sliver of Florida populated by protected wildlife and rocket scientists in equal measure. Dead snakes curled against the asphalt, and alligators napped in the canals beside the road. Bald-eagle nests dotted the spindly trees. I had been there before, but only to the visitor’s complex, which we whizzed past, its rocket garden visible from the car. The noses of unused rockets and historical replicas rose above the buildings, blossoming against the sky like metal flowers. This time around, I wasn’t there for the historical exhibits: the moon rock behind glass, the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This time, I was there for the real thing.

It was a mild Sunday morning in February. The traffic thinned as cars turned off into the parking lot, but we pressed on—past roseate spoonbills and white egrets standing knee-deep in swampy water, past an imposing security checkpoint where my host, Naomi, flashed her credentials. We kept going, deep into the heart of the Kennedy Space Center.

The facility completed its first launch in November 1967 (the uncrewed Saturn V rocket) and immediately became the American gateway to outer space. Every crewed NASA mission to date has blasted off from this sleepy Floridian island, and many of NASA’s uncrewed missions continue to launch from either the Kennedy Space Center or the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just a few miles east. These days, American astronauts heading for the International Space Station hitch rides to space on Russian rockets, but before the shuttle program ended in 2011, this was the island where those missions began. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Jim Lovell, Mae Jemison—their journeys all started here.

I’d come to see a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propel a Dragon cargo capsule into space. It wasn’t the first Falcon launch, and wouldn’t be the last, but it would be the first liftoff from launchpad 39A since Atlantis’s final mission, in July 2011. After six years of vacancy, the launchpad was once again bustling with activity. The Dragon would be headed for the ISS, bearing 5,500 pounds of supplies and experiments, including forty mice, used for studying bone density in zero G. The Falcon would jettison the Dragon capsule, then return to Cape Canaveral via remote-control landing. SpaceX, the private space-travel company founded by Elon Musk, has leased 39A from NASA for a twenty-year term. Their tenure had only just begun. One year after this re-christening, SpaceX would go on to successfully launch its first Falcon Heavy, a bigger and more powerful version of the Falcon 9.

While NASA focuses on its mission to Mars, the task of sending astronauts to the ISS and launching new satellites has fallen to private contractors. SpaceX isn’t the only company in the mix—Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation also have contracts with NASA for both crewed and uncrewed missions in the years ahead. The day when private citizens will be able to purchase a flight around the moon is not far off—in fact, two people have already given SpaceX a hefty down payment for a flight that is tentatively scheduled to launch as soon as this year.

We parked on the grass and joined the other launch spectators. The crowd was patient; many of us had been there the day before, when engineers scrubbed the launch seconds before liftoff due to a slight irregularity. There was a low throb of excitement, but no one would have been surprised if the launch was scrubbed again. The crowd was full of NASA employees, contractors, and their guests—folks who intimately understood what a slight irregularity could do to a rocket. In September 2016, one of SpaceX’s Falcons exploded during fueling, decimating the Cape Canaveral launchpad it was sitting on. No one was injured, but the explosion rendered the launchpad unusable, which brought SpaceX here, to 39A.

Lawn chairs, picnic blankets, and thermoses were strewn across the grass, and a low mist had begun to burn away in the mounting heat. There were NASA crests everywhere, on hats and T-shirts and water bottles, with a smattering of SpaceX logos. A thicket of tripods was set up at the edge of the cordon, bearing high-tech cameras, binoculars, and telescopes. The massive Vehicle Assembly Building, 518 feet wide and 525 feet tall, towered behind us. Off to the side sat an unassuming gray structure where Naomi programs software for NASA’s mission to Mars: a project that is years away from fruition but closer than folks might think, with tests of the Space Launch System (NASA’s most powerful rocket ever) scheduled in the next few years and a human expedition expected by the early 2030s.

I checked the time. T-minus twenty-eight minutes. The viewing area was spacious, the bleachers sparsely occupied. There was a steady buzz of anticipation coming from the waiting bystanders. I set up my own tripod away from the gridlock closest to the launchpad and focused my zoom lens on the Falcon 9 rocket, some three miles off, then snapped some test shots. The rocket was partially hidden from view by its launch tower, but the Dragon capsule was visible above the service structure, its nose pointed skyward. A water tower, emblazoned with the SpaceX logo, stood off to the left. Seagulls congregated in the foreground, swooping and gliding past that great metal bird that had yet to take wing. Between us and the launchpad stretched three miles of marshy wetlands. I checked again. T-minus 17 minutes.

At T-minus 5, voices began to intone stages of readiness over the loudspeakers. Intermittently at first, and then with more frequency. Eyes turned toward launchpad 39A. There was a collective hush, and the final countdown began. The crowd chanted along, four, three, two, one. . . . Clouds of vapor billowed from beneath the Falcon rocket, the glow of ignition bloomed, and then: liftoff. The hold-down arms released, and the rocket rose into the sky, buoyed by a thick, fiery cord of burning fuel. The roar took a second to reach us, but when it did, it was deafening. Slicing into the low-hanging clouds, the rocket disappeared from view, leaving behind a dull rumble that rolled across the field like a tidal wave.

Cries of delight and awe rippled through the spectators. I lingered, unable to look away. The rocket was gone, the clouds of steam on the launchpad had dissipated, but the glow of the launch was still etched into my corneas. As my fixation faded, I noticed the crowd migrating toward the other side of the viewing area.

“The landing,” people murmured to one another.

I followed, and there, seven or eight minutes later, we could just make out the Falcon’s first-stage booster cutting down through the thick gray clouds, the pale yellow glow of burning propellant dropping toward the earth to find its mark on Landing Zone 1. The sonic boom of reentry reverberated for miles. A perfect, bull’s-eye landing.

Officials immediately began to shoo us toward our cars. Just as quickly as the Falcon climbed into space, the crowd dispersed. The sky betrayed nothing of what we had just witnessed. As we made our way back to the main road, pure Florida blue shone through the parting cloud cover, and a pair of egrets stalked the grassy shoulder. Soon, the Dragon spacecraft would make its way into orbit, then to the International Space Station. I paused to consider where it was headed, and what would be next.

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



December 2018


The Gatekeepers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today