Archive for April, 2011
And Then They Broke The Mold: A Personal/Professional Remembrance of John Michael “Mike” Lounge – Conclusion
4th of 4 Parts
Late in October, we met on a sunny afternoon. Mike looked terrible, sounded worse, and complained as he had been for several weeks that he did not feel well. He had a cough he couldn’t seem to get rid of. He seemed lethargic. A bit exasperated with him, I bugged him about seeing a doc. He blew it off with some dry comment or another and a look that said “drop it”. I did. A couple of weeks later, the same. And again, a couple of weeks after that. He seemed fine one day, and not the next. I tagged up with his protege, who had been much closer to him over more years than I. She thought he wasn’t well, either.
When the conversation came back around to him, I pushed, hard. He sat back, looked at me, and surprised me by admitting that he didn’t want to go because he was afraid of what they might find. He talked about the human body’s ability to heal, and that if it couldn’t, doctors probably couldn’t do much anyway.
I accused him of rationalizing. He laughed and admitted it. I let it go. I brought the issue up a couple more times through December and into mid-January, but after playing the Brittany card I didn’t really think there was much more for me to say, other than I was concerned about him. Mike wasn’t one to dwell on such things, and he didn’t want others to dwell on them either. So most of the time I colluded with him, and ignored it, and just enjoyed the time talking, laughing and working with him.
I thought about all of that today, particularly upon hearing the diagnosis. Looking back, I’m sure he knew. It’s a good bet that the melanoma he had delayed in treating three years earlier, though apparently cured, had instead slept somewhere inside, eventually finding its way to his liver. By the time it was detected, Mike was in the last two weeks of his life. Even if it been found earlier, the odds of survival would’ve been surpassingly small.
So as it turned out he was probably right about the docs.
The last time I saw Mike was at my house on New Year’s Day. On that particular day he
looked and sounded well, and had sent a warm email in response to my invitation. He’d been up a couple times previously for dinner. Since then I hadn’t been getting out much but I stayed in touch by email or phone every 10 days or so – until about two weeks ago. At that time, I sent him an apologetic email, because I owed him a tax document – he’d done some work for me the year before – and I was way behind. His humorous response was that I shouldn’t worry because he was way behind, too. I talked to him a few days later – he sounded tired – but he didn’t say a word about the tests. Nor did I know he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and was in the hospital. So the news today was a complete shock that left me ragged and emotional, as it did many other people. I took much of the day alternating between crying and trying to reach out to folks he’d talked about – to friends, colleagues, astronauts, people he’d mentored – passing along things he’d said; sometimes about them, sometimes about the endeavor in which they are engaged – in which we are all engaged – human spaceflight – in the hopes that it might help.
I needed it to help me, too.
In my imagination there are as many Mike Lounge stories as there are people who knew him, times the number of years they knew him, times 10. Or 100. I only knew him for a little while. My heart aches for his granddaughter, and goes out to his children, his family, and to all who worked with him, knew him, and/or loved him. The prevailing sentiment today on emails, in phone calls, across the country – other than shock – has been the profound sense of loss reflected across the entire community due to his passing – and Mike’s entire community was HUGE. He was a single-minded, dedicated warrior; a visionary convinced down to his very DNA that national interest at the “local” level – and human survival on the global level – was contingent upon human spaceflight. He once called this work “building the Pyramids of our civilization.” He’d lived that conviction, as an astronaut, a businessman, an advocate, a mentor, an advisor at high levels of government, a member of I don’t know how many boards, working groups, advisory committees, etc.
I’ll miss Mike because he was unique, because I had come to love him, and because I have absolutely no idea how to fill up the space left by his abrupt departure. Most of all I’ll miss Mike because his voice was needed – an upstream swimmer, a damn-the-conventional-wisdom-if-its-wrong kind of guy, a politically astute observer, a tough-love taskmaster, a supportive and generous friend, and a brilliant intellect. As another friend & colleague of mine put it today “ … manned spaceflight has lost such a mind”. Yes. And, I would add, a mensch.
Mike – wherever you are – you should know I have in hand a glass of Pinot Noir, raised to you. I have no doubt that if you saw this essay, you’d hate it – though you might be secretly pleased. You’d first kick my ass, then you’d correct me. Or the other way around. Then we’d have a discussion. You’d probably win.
And there it would be. That glint in your eye.
Fly safe, my friend.
Your Partner In Crime
NOTE: Before he died Mike set up a trust fund for Brittany. After his death a message was posted on the St. Luke’s Hospital “Caring Bridge” Website set up for Mike by his son, asking people to make donations to the fund. The website can still be accessed. I checked today (4/9/2011) and over 1200 messages have left on the site. Access requires that you register with an email and password.
Anyone wishing to pay tribute to Mike, please consider making a donation to the fund. Kenneth’s note is reproduced here:
“A message to Friends and Family:
Dad cared very deeply for his grand-daughter Brittany Spenla. He asked that we make donations to a memorial fund benefitting her in lieu of flowers or gifts. An account has been set up at JSC Federal Credit Union under the name BRITTANY SPENLA TRUST account #1095852.”