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“NASA Scientist Soffen Dies at 74
“WASHINGTON (AP) – Gerald Soffen, project scientist on NASA’s Viking
missions to Mars, died Wednesday of a heart ailment. He was 74. Soffen most
recently was director of University Programs at the Goddard Space Flight
Center in Maryland, where he led the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration’s study of life in the universe through its astrobiology
“Soffen began his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
Calif., where he managed the development of biological instruments. In the
mid-1970s, Soffen, as project scientist for the Viking missions to Mars, was
responsible for the first successful scientific experiments performed on the
surface of the planet. He directed a team of 70 scientists from across the
nation to plan the mission, which concluded that no life was present on
Mars. From 1978 to 1983, he was NASA’s director of life sciences and was
responsible for the medical well-being of its astronauts. He joined the
Goddard center in 1983.
“Survivors include his wife, Kazuko A. Soffen, and a sister, Nancy Guy of
That’s the way the media described him — my cousin, Gerry. It’s funny,
but though I was aware of his accomplishments, that’s not the Gerry I knew
and loved and will miss terribly.
My last image of Gerry is of him standing in the rain the day of my
mother’s funeral last January. He delivered the eulogy that day. I might
have suspected he’d be next. (There is a strange tradition in our family of
people who deliver eulogies at funerals being the next to go).
A couple of other oddities. I got an e-mail from Gerry, written at
midnight on the night of his death. It was a one-word message. It said,
“France?” (in reaction to the news that I’d taken up residence here).
According to the doctor’s reports, Gerry suffered a heart attack within
10 minutes of writing me that e-mail. The very same night, my sister in
California had a dream in which Gerry appeared very gaunt and weak. He was
wrapped in a white blanket. My sister (in the dream) began to cry. Gerry, in
that calm he always had, said simply, “You don’t have to cry.” Whereupon she
Gerry was like that. Not that he wasn’t emotional. When my father passed
away, he stood by the bedside and wept like a baby. I think this is a side
of him that the world at large, the one that knew him as a top scientist at
NASA didn’t know.
So if you don’t mind, I want to recall just a little bit of the “other”
Gerry, the one I knew.
Mostly I remember him as my big cousin … the one who always coached and
guided me. In the 6th grade when I was stuck for a science project, Gerry
went out and bought me an ultraviolet light, and made me this really neat
chart about angstrom units that I wowed my class with. On his visits (we
lived in Cleveland, he, at the time, in California) he’d always bring
“secret treats” with him. On that visit, it was a record by
Lehrer, with great songs like
“The Old Dope
“Rickety Tickety Tin” (now banned) that he and I would play on the hi-fi after my parents had gone to bed.
I will always see Gerry in one way. Wearing an out-of-style dark blue suit, slightly rumpled, tie (probably red) askew. He always wore the most terrible socks … and I loved it.
Though his job afforded him plenty of money, he had absolutely no time for style or fashion. He was far too busy with all the ideas that were buzzing around his head.
He was 74 years old when he died. I knew that his coal black hair and goatee were dyed … but even imagining him with white hair, the man exuded such an amazing youth that it was astonishing to hear his “real” age.
In fact, Gerry was one of those rare human beings who was absolutely and completely ageless.
He’d had a bad heart for years. He always sloughed it off, told me that the beta blockers were working fine. And of course I knew that it was the heart that would ultimately go.
I’m told by those who are wiser than I that I should be thankful that he went quickly — that he didn’t suffer or waste away.
I wish I could say that I am thankful for that, but I’d be lying if I did so.
I will never ever see my wonderful cousin again and am saddened beyond belief. And right now, mostly I’m angry.
I’m angry at the God that has whittled my family down to the bone, to the God who’s sucker punched me twice now within the last year, to the God that has seen fit to leave me with a residue of nightmares which find me sitting straight up in bed gasping for air each and every night since the death of my mother last January.
No, I haven’t given up my faith in God (sometimes I wish I could) but I won’t pretend to be philosophical. God, who knows my heart, knows that I am angry, that I don’t understand, that I cannot accept these deaths with any sort of cheap spirituality.
I hope you’ll all forgive my indulgence here, but I needed to use the space that this column affords me in this fashion. I needed to give the space to Gerry, to rant and rail at the universal powers that be, even if I humiliate myself in the process.
And that, I think, is all I have to say.