Chapter 289 Having Drinks
Life in the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory was probably the simplest one Zhang Heng ever led. The lab’s staff, save for the blond HR executive, and Director Jim, who rattled Congress every morning for more funds, were the most decent and passionate researchers Zhang Heng had ever come across. They neither plotted against nor wrangled against each other, and since there was no main mission in the transitional quest, there were no threats to his survival either. Zhang Heng passed his days peacefully and uneventfully.
Every day, Wei Zhonghua would give him engineering lessons, more like a crash course, actually. Knowing his student was lagging behind actual MIT graduates, the engineer spared no expense, imparting everything he knew, whenever he could. Then, at the end of each day, Zhang Heng would buy drinks for the pilots who frequented the nearby pub with his internship salary. In the second month, he successfully boarded an airplane, and in the fourth, awarded the experience of flying subsonic on the T-33. He wasn’t far from flying a plane on his own.
However, Wei Zhonghua resigned from NASA not long after that, citing a longing for a school’s environment. The man was to head to Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute to teach as a professor. The whole debacle alarmed Glennan, NASA’s chairman, and despite his best efforts at persuasion, nothing was going to stop Wei Zhonghua from leaving. Thus, the people in the lab ended up giving Wei Zhonghua a little farewell party. Zhang Heng did not join the party but drove Wei Zhonghua and his wife to the train station in a borrowed Chevrolet.
He was among the few who really knew Wu Zhonghua’s true intentions. Even though staying back in the lab would have been more beneficial, it was really just a game, and no matter where, whatever timeline, or how many times he experienced it, someone somewhere would make the same choice, regardless. Knowing these things, Zhang Heng did not even try to convince Wei Zhonghua to stay.
In fact, Wei Zhonghua had already helped him a lot. Right now, although still behind an actual MIT engineering graduate, four months had passed, and from a zero, Zhang Heng was now able to perform tasks required for the research and was very familiar with Wei Zhonghua’s research. He had no trouble doing things like collecting data and filling in the finished models. Even if another were to replace Wei Zhonghua, Zhang Heng could continue working in the laboratory by putting on an act, considering he actually knew what he was doing
Zhang Heng watched on as the train carrying Wu Zhonghua and his wife pulled away. Having heard that Wu Zhonghua’s replacement was currently being transferred from the Langley laboratory, and wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow, he didn’t rush back to the laboratory. Except for waiting, there wasn’t much for him and the female assistant to do. This could only mean a day off work, and seeing how pleasant the day was; Zhang Heng decided to cruise around Cleveland in the borrowed car he was in.
He bought two vinyl records of Patty Page, a burger, and a corn tortilla, unexpectedly making an achievement worth three points. After that, he fed pigeons in the city park, as he lazily strolled around. It was a beautiful day, not one to be wasted just like that in the confines of concrete and glass. Zhang Heng only returned to the laboratory before sunset He had just gotten out of the car when the blonde girl rushed over and grabbed hold of
“Great! We just got ourselves a test pilot. He’s in the corridor on the first floor. But something came up in Congress, and I have to hurry over. I’ll need you to show him around the lab and the runway.”
She sputtered her words, pushing a stack of documents into Zhang Heng’s hands. “While you’re at that, please pass these to Professor Maggie for me…”
…the black Jaguar XK120 parked not too far away kept honking.
The blonde stumbled, blowing a kiss at Zhang Heng. “When I get back tomorrow, I’ll treat you a cup of coffee. It’s a date!”
Before he could answer, she pulled up her skirt and ran to the car in her heels.
And just like that, Zhang Heng became the receptionist of the laboratory. Shaking his head, he carried the things to the corridor and saw someone indeed waiting there.
The man looked to be quite young, in his twenties, perhaps. But unlike most youth of this age, he had an inherent brooding quality about him, as if he was always pondering about something. At the same time, his subtle but decisive movements bore the temperament of a seasoned soldier.
That last part was not unusual – many test pilots in the laboratory came from a military background.
When he saw Zhang Heng approaching, he politely got up from his seat.
“How do you do, sir? I’m David, lab intern. You must be the new test pilot. Jane asked me to show you around the place you’ll be working.”
“Thank you,” the man said, offering a hand. “Neil Armstrong, retired navy pilot.”
His voice was deep and firm.
Zhang Heng stopped in his tracks as he held Neil’s hand, freezing for a brief second. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing! Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Armstrong,” Zhang Heng blurted quickly.
“The pleasure is mine.”
“If you don’t mind, I have to get these documents to Professor Maggie before we start the tour.”
Zhang Heng did not expect to meet Neil Armstrong – the first man to land on the moon. Not now, in 1955, at least. In retrospect, Armstrong had indeed worked for NASA as a test pilot for a certain period. At that time, the legendary astronaut looked youthful, and according to Zhang Heng’s calculations, Armstrong should be only about twenty-five. After completing his Navy service, he had returned to finish his university education. He hadn’t yet obtained a master’s degree in aviation engineering. Later in his life, upon making history on a successful moon mission, he kept a low profile, living a quiet life teaching at a university. He almost never accepted interviews, nor did he write a single biography. In fact, few knew that Armstrong never took a picture of himself on the moon. The widely circulated moon landing photo was actually taken by his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong’s shadow could barely be seen from the reflection of Aldrin’s helmet. The other famous photo, the footprint on the moon’s surface, was also the courtesy of Aldrin.
Unlike his rather rambunctious crewmate, Armstrong was a humble and unostentatious man; only the few who corresponded with him knew what he had to through when he was a young man.
But Zhang Heng was more interested in Armstrong’s piloting skills, a prodigy who obtained his pilot license when he was merely sixteen years of age. Before getting his driver’s license, or even joining NASA, he had already piloted more than 200 different aircraft types. This was one of the main reasons he was chosen to be an astronaut. Zhang Heng was unsure about on thing, though. Would their meeting in 1955 affect the quest fourteen years later?
After delivering the documents to Professor Maggie, Zhang Heng hurriedly went back to Armstrong. “So, did you arrive in Cleveland?”.
“Yeah. I submitted an application to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, but since they are full, I was assigned here for now,” Armstrong answered. “If that’s the case, we should get drinks after the tour.”