Pre-Launch Reflections

by Pat Rapp


Everyone says your first trip to Burning Man changes your life. For me, my life began changing before I even arrived on the playa. It started when I was picked up at the airport by Mama Overlord and taken to the launch site. Once there, I was greeted with big hugs by both Mama Overlord and Admiral Jet Burns. In those first moments while we were taking my four suitcases out of the car (virgin year – I overpacked), I didn’t feel like a stranger who had just come from the other side of the continent to meet the crew for the first time. I felt like a family member coming home for the holidays.

I’m pretty sure I had tears in my eyes when I first viewed the Mars Rover Art Car. It was a beautiful sight. Although I had been watching the progress from the east coast through online posts, I had no idea how moving it would be to see it in person. I remember putting my hands on my cheeks, Home Alone style, and saying, “Oh. My. God.” This was not something that had come off a factory floor. This wasn’t a vehicle that had a few lights thrown on it to make it look arty and fun. This larger-than-life-sized replica of the Curiosity rover was hand-built by a volunteer crew who put in long hours after work and on weekends, completely as a work of passion.

Mars Rover Art Car

Photo credit: Tom Varden

It was an amazing sight.

And it wasn’t finished yet. Motorbike Matt and Captain Everything were still working, despite the fact that it was 11 pm and the mission was set to launch in 12 hours. I realized then that the mission was not necessarily getting this thing built and hauled to Burning Man. The act of creation, and the year of work leading up to this point, was as valuable as the finished product. They were savoring this work and continuing to share ideas and tweak the Rover until 3 am, when they finally grabbed a little sleep on the couch or floor before getting up again in the morning and doing more final adjustments.

Shawna and Switch were there in the morning, as well, having arrived at some point while I was still sleeping. The build site was a flurry of activity and excitement. The Rover was prepped, the truck, RV, and trailer were loaded, and the site was cleaned up. Jet’s brother John spent hours organizing gear and packing the trailer, even though he was unable to go with us to Burning Man.

Although this was not in any way a NASA-sponsored project, we acted like it was and took our roles as Rovernauts very seriously. We wore NASA-style orange jumpsuits. We practiced our “NASA walkout” a few times before John filmed it. We launched on time.

One of the principles of Burning Man is Radical Self Expression. This crew extended that principle into one of Collective Radical Self Expression. We expressed ourselves as the science nerds we are and, collectively, became Rovernauts. We set our course for exploration of the Mars-like environment of the playa.

The large number of people who worked on this project was something I don’t remember ever experiencing before. The skill sets involved are vast and the dedication unparalleled. These are people who get things done.  This is a close group of talented people who welcome new ideas and new people, and enjoy the thrill of creation.

My life had already changed that first day at the launch site. I had discovered a group who would be my family for nine days in the desert. I discovered that each of us can be part of something amazing, and that collectively, phenomenal things can be accomplished. All this, and we hadn’t even left the house yet.