Driving into the Anderson Valley is a dizzying experience. The winding road along the Pacific is set above a never-ending precipice that hooks east and quickly turns into miles of imposing redwood forest. Another road snakes over the mountains from Sonoma County, winding up and down along equally sketchy cliffs. No matter how you slice it, the drive into Mendocino County is treacherous. But the reward is high: Phenomenal reds await, as Pinot Noir grows prolific and well with the nearby coastal climate.
Husch Vineyards was one of the first winemakers to discover Pinot Noir’s strength in the Anderson Valley. And a few days each week, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman visits the tasting room to pour Husch’s wine. Qualifications: He knows a thing or two about treacherous travel for big, incredible reds.
Michael J. Martin spent more than four decades working in aerospace. His last seven years with Boeing made him one of only two people on planet Earth to manage three missions to Mars for NASA. (That doesn’t include all the other missions he’d launched for the Department of Defense, as well as commercial and foreign customers.) After retirement, he moved from Southern California to the sparsely populated town of Mendocino, where he quietly started pouring wines at Husch.
Though Martin might remain tight-lipped about space-related specifics, here, he shares his thoughts about growing grapes on Mars and his go-to drink pre-liftoff.
1. How do you even prepare for a mission to Mars?
For the last seven years of my professional career, I was a mission integration manager on the Delta Program at Boeing. That position was responsible for bringing together all the elements necessary to launch a spacecraft on its mission into space.
Our launch services contract with NASA specified a standard set of tasks and durations: Once the mission launch date was specified, we assembled the engineering team for that mission and published the integration schedule. After the Launch Readiness Review, a handful of Boeing program and engineering management went out to the launch site for a walk down of the launch vehicle. The walk down begins with a climb up the 140- foot service tower. On a warm summer day in Florida, this exercise is best done in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt. Leave the three-piece suit behind — I learned the hard way on my first launch.
At the top, we donned clean-room garb and entered the sealed area around the top of the launch vehicle. Every portion of the Delta II rocket was examined as we walked down level by level to the bottom of the launch pad. The used clean-room garb then got left behind, and we were good to go.
During the countdown, I sat at my console and monitored the events up to the hold at L-6 minutes [or six minutes until liftoff]. When the count resumed, I was up and out the back door to watch the rocket fly — heart stopping. Once it was out of sight, the rest of the rocket flight was monitored at the console until spacecraft separation.
2. What did you drink the night before or after a Mars mission?
Generally iced tea or Diet Coke. Needed to be sharp.
We launched my last mission, Phoenix, to Mars shortly before I retired. It takes seven months to get to Mars. During that time I retired, moved from Huntington Beach to Mendocino, and started pouring wine at Husch. The day of the landing, we invited our new neighbors over to watch history on our new 73-inch TV. During the spacecraft’s final approach to Mars — the red planet — and entry into its atmosphere, we enjoyed Husch Vin Gris, a dry rosé of Pinot Noir. Once the spacecraft was successfully on the surface, we broke out the bubbly, Roederer rosé, and celebrated.
3. Why did you move up to Mendocino after retiring from Boeing?
Simple: We didn’t need the congestion of Orange County. Country life in Mendocino was a way of turning back the clock.
4. Why did you choose the wine world after leaving outer space?
I had taken some wine-tasting classes in the past, so I had some background, and have learned a lot more since then. Retirement can be a shock to many. It’s not unusual to find retirees involved in all kinds of volunteer work, passing on their life knowledge to others.
5. Do you notice any similarities between the wine world and managing space missions?
Neither the wine maker nor the mission integration managers work 9 to 5.
6. What kind of wine would you recommend drinking during the next rover landing?
Assuming the rover is going to Mars… red.
7. What was the greatest challenge you’ve faced working at Husch, and did your skills from your previous career come in handy?
Remembering not to get too technical. Speaking to people in plain, simple English works best. Fortunately, my professional career involved a fair amount of public speaking to all kinds of groups. So, yes they did.
8. Given everything we know about Mars — and that scene from “The Martian” where Matt Damon’s character grows potatoes there to stay alive — which grape do you think would fare best on Mars?
A grape that requires an engineering background and not a farming background. Remember when [Damon’s character’s] air supply malfunctioned and filled his habitat with explosive hydrogen? He ran and got into his vehicle while his habitat exploded, killing all his potatoes? Why didn’t he just open the doors and let the hydrogen vent, thus saving his food supply?
9. (Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?) In any case, how would a grape need to be “engineered” to grow on the red planet?
This gets harder, not being a horticulturist. Agriculture depends on soil, water, atmosphere, light, and heat. Let’s assume soil can be found on Mars suitable for growing plants and that there really is enough water to tap. Indoor agriculture is currently state-of-the-art on Earth, and a nuclear power station for the Mars colony should be able to provide heat and supplemental lighting. Mars is cold and gets less light than Earth from the sun. All that said, it would seem that growing food, including grapes, on Mars should be fairly straightforward. No grape engineering needed. There have already been a number of self-contained habitats on Earth where people lived and grew their own food for extended periods.
My choice would be a variety of grape types that could be blended into a Bordeaux meritage.