Loretta Jackson Delong (1948-2016)


Received this morning:

Aleta, as she was known to all, passed away this morning in the Midland hospital ER. Aleta knew from the time she was twelve that she would build and fly spaceships. Her first professional work was as an engineering co op from Indiana Tech working on the Gemini program for McDonnell. Her engineering degree was cut short when she went home to nurse her mother back to health. After that, she joined the USAF as airman Jackson.

Aleta worked for Xerox for ten years as a repair technician and wrote both science fiction and non-fiction stories. She worked for the L-5 Society, both in Tucson and later in Washington DC. During her stay in DC, Aleta became an aide to General Daniel Graham and helped create the DC-X launch vehicle, later renamed the Clipper Graham. She also edited the Journal of Practical Applications of Space while with Graham’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.

As an indefatigable supporter of launch vehicle development, Aleta then became one of Rotary Rocket Company’s first employees, where she was general office manager. When the propulsion group was laid off from Rotary, Aleta was the person who told Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong, and Doug Jones that they had to stick with it, and founded XCOR Aerospace.

In the beginning, because the XCOR founders received no pay, Aleta took an additional job as a reporter/editor of the Mojave Desert News. Meanwhile, she was XCOR’s purchasing, personnel, bookkeeping, editorial, receiving, community outreach, and travel departments. As the company grew, she shed most of these tasks. In late 2015 she helped Jeff Greason start Agile Aero. Aleta was a personal as well as professional partner of Dan DeLong since the early days of Rotary, and they were officially married in 2016. The very next day, however, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and succumbed to complications of the chemotherapy regimen.

My deepest condolences to Dan, and her friends and family. She was a long-time friend and occasional colleague, and no one I know fought harder for our future in space.

[Monday-morning update]

I’ve added what Dan tells me was one of her favorite pictures of herself.

[Monday-afternoon update]

I encourage people to read all of the kind and understandably heartbroken comments, but this one from Dan is important for those who knew her:

Thanks all for the kind words. In order to allow time for those traveling, and to get around the holidays, the memorial service will be Sunday, Jan 15 at the Christian Church of Midland at 2608 Neely Ave. Thanks again, Dan.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it, but I’ll try.

[Monday-evening update]

Henry Vanderbilt remembers Aleta’s akita, Rufo.


I do as well, because thanks to Rufo’s and Henry’s generosity, I once shared a hotel room with them at the Space Access Conference (despite my allergy to dogs, but I survived, and he was a great dog. And I’ve done that more than once, even after the passing of Rufo, despite the fact that I snore, for which I’m grateful to Henry, and will always regret any loss of sleep on his part).

[Late-evening update]

Via Clark Lindey, here is the local news reporting:

Greason, who is now the founder of upstart Midland-headquartered Agile Aero, said DeLong’s role in XCOR was invaluable in helping ideas become reality but that she always stayed in the background.

“During the time before I came to know her in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the idea of commercial or reusable space vehicles was a lonely idea to be a champion of,” he said. “She was one of a very small number of people running around and keeping that idea alive. She was never somebody who put her name on the front door, but wherever you turned … you’d find her as the person keeping the community together.”

Yes. I feel like Aleta was always there, and there is a big hole in my life that she no longer is.

[Update late evening]

Here’s a guestbook via legacy.com (not sure how official this is, but it’s via NASAWatch, and Keith apparently cannot bring himself to link to this website, despite the numerous encomia here, and its current numero-uno ranking on Google for Aleta’s name).

77 thoughts on “Loretta Jackson Delong (1948-2016)”

  1. There are no words adequate to express the depth of our loss. My deepest condolences go out to Dan and all others whose lives Aleta brightened.

  2. Every XCORian, or ex-XCORian, has two mothers: their own, and Aleta.

    In addition to being our denmother, she was a friend, a confidant, a sounding board, an advocate, a kindred spirit, the keeper of lore, and much else besides.
    Not because I was special, though she made everyone feel they were. She was all this to hundreds.

    My condolences to Dan, and to the Agile family. (And we know it is a family, because it had Aleta).

    Ad astra per aspera, Aleta. You are missed.

  3. I’ll peg 1980 as the year I met that pint-sized, chuckling dynamo with the mercurial smile. Back then, she was a fan of Science Fiction, but her eyes were ever on the stars. I remember her in something slinky and black, her scarlet tights peeking from the back slit skirt as she puffed on a black Sobrani jutting from a long, elegant filter. Friday nights became mini-conventions at her place, fueled by a bottomless pot of coffee. Star Wars was spoken with reverence, with just a hint of mischief. Time passed, we moved on, she to DC, where her “Lankhmar on the Potomac” letters chronicled the trials and triumphs of Big City life and politics. I had hoped she’d take her fiction writing seriously; she had the talent, but her eyes were ever on the stars, the real stars, and the rockets to help us reach them. My condolences to Dan and their cats. Ad astra, my dear. I am heartbroken and I will miss you.

    1. “Ma’am, how will our officers recognize you?”
      “I’ll be the one with the sword.”

      Pure Aleta.

  4. I have a photo of Aleta saying hi to her old dog Rufo at a Space Access conference around the turn of the century, at http://space-access.org/updates/AletaAndRufo.jpg (Is there a way to attach photos here? Feel free to copy it over.)

    While she lived in DC southeast in the nineties, Rufo The Akita’s job had been to persuade the local crack dealers they wanted to be on the *other* side of the street when Aleta came by. He was very good at his job.

    Mind, Aleta was probably more dangerous than Rufo – there was the time she held a terrified would-be burglar at katana-point till the Tucson cops arrived to rescue him – but she didn’t look it, so having Rufo along for evening strolls saved unfortunate misunderstandings.

    After she came west, she couldn’t keep him so I adopted him, but you can see Rufo was pretty pleased to see his Mom again.

    1. And yes, Aleta named Rufo for Star’s uncle in Glory Road, if anyone was wondering.

      Hiya, Deb! I fondly remember your Cuddly Cthulhu stuffed toys, BTW. (Think plush teddy bear, but green with batwings and face tendrils, the rest of you.) Aleta had one for the longest time, I recall.

      1. Aleta told this cute story of walking along near her Capitol Hill home, Cthulhu cuddled in her arms. She passed someone on the sidewalk (must have been walking sans Rufo, because people tended to cross to the other side of the street when they saw her and Rufo), and after the people had passed her, she heard one of them whisper to the other (about the Cthulhu in Aleta’s arms): “Ugliest damned baby I ever saw!”

  5. Our paths crossed around the same time as Dale Amon’s. It has been a lot of years and I always remember her fondly. Feisty ladies are a treasure in this lifetime. Condolences to Dan DeLong and the rest of the XCOR crew.

    Note to the greybeards of the L5, SSI, SFF, alt.space community: The years continue to tick by. There have been a lot of them. None of us are getting any younger. Take care of one another. We are all connected at some level. We generally all want the same outcome though the techniques tend to vary a bit. Lots of good friends out there. Keep in touch. Cheers and Regards –

  6. This is so sad. My heart goes out to Dan Delong, and all of those closest to Aleta. She was such a great lady, and it was always a delight to see her at Space Access, or at Mojave. She was a great friend to me, and to all those engaged in opening the final frontier.

    Aleta makes three great women that we’ve lost to cancer this year. Dawn Brooke Owens, Patricia Grace Smith, and now Loretta Jackson Delong. Each played a different, but significant, role in the space enterprise, and all are sorely missed.

  7. Met Aleta at a con in Arizona in the early 1980’s. She introduced me to L5, which I joined, and I always enjoyed her writing. We weren’t close, but kept in touch over the years, and she was always encouraging. I am saddened and will miss her.

  8. Aleta was one of those people you can’t really describe. You had to be there. More than anyone else I know, Aleta inspired and persuaded people to be there. She started dozens of NewSpace careers, mine included, daring people to come to Mojave and make history.

    ERPS always brought hardware to space conferences. One year at Space Frontier, Michael Wallis and I were sitting at the bar with the 750 lb peroxide engine. “Bet you’ve never had a rocket engine on your bar before.” Aleta heard that, told us, “Wait here,” and disappeared. We waited there. When Aleta told you to do something, you did it.

    She reappeared carrying a beautiful trophy cup we recognized as a Rotary Rocket 5000 lb burner can. “Bet you’ve never had *two* rocket engines on your bar before.” I looked at the beautiful shiny aluminum bell, no discoloration at all, and said, “Ours has been fired.” (Dumb, yeah, I know. Now.) She got that look in her eye – you know the one – and said, “So has ours. Last night.” “Not with that bell it hasn’t.”

    If I had to describe Aleta in one word, the word would be “empirical.” Aleta grabbed my head, stuffed it into the bell, and said, “SMELL.” To hear was to obey. I smelled. “Kerosene and phenolic. It’s been fired. Recently.” “LAST NIGHT. …The bell is cosmetic.”

    That was Aleta in a nutshell. No claim she couldn’t back, no pride she hadn’t earned. Aleta lived while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

    Ad Astra, Aleta.

  9. I first met Aleta about 10 months ago. Within 10 minutes she made me feel warm and welcome, casually suggesting a mound of scifi novels and all the while subtly probing for thoughts on improving space launch. Reading this blog, its clear she’s been doing the same for hundreds and hundreds of people over many many years, helping each find their purpose in expanding humanity’s depth of understanding and outward reach into space. What an incredible person! This blog is one of the few smiles I’ve had since hearing of her passing. I am so lucky for having known Aleta.

  10. I met Aleta at Space Access. What I remember most fondly is her way of making what was going on — the nuts-and-bolts science and engineering — accessible and exciting without ever talking down to or above her audience, even someone like me (my background is in biology, my only usable talent was keeping the Space Access attendees fed and caffeinated). Hers was a very rare gift, and will be sorely missed.

  11. Condolences to Dan and her friends. It’s been many years since I worked with Aleta, but I still remember them as “the good old days.”

  12. Met Aleta at least once, at the ISDC in Washington, circa 1986. I did not know her very well but kudos to her accomplishments in space access development! Re-usability IS the way to go! Her thinking was way ahead of her time and she even got to execute some of her ideas it seems! Very cool! My condolences to her family and those with whom she worked at XCOR.

  13. Oh, Dan, I am so, so sorry for your loss. That’s such an overused platitude but this breaks my heart – Aleta was a very special person and you two were so good together. It always made me happy that you had found someone to share your life with – both work and hobbies – and that she was such a fun person to be with. I really enjoyed our visits together, hearing about all the interesting activities you two were into that I knew nothing about. She was a smart lady, lots of fun and she loved cats! What more could you ask for?

    Know that I’m there for you if you need anything and you’re always welcome here – I’ll treat you like the baby “brother” I always thought of you as since that first time I met you, baking something really smelly for your submarine in your mom’s oven.

    And may Aleta’s spirit and life force be with you always.

    Love, Franci

  14. Aleta was the heart and soul of the original XCOR I was so privileged to work with and test fly for. She was one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever known. What a joy it was to take her up in the X Racer to give her the thrill of actually flying in a rocket! I’ll never forget after the flight – a pretty aggressive one as we were near the end of the workup phase before flying it at Oshkosh – when she poured herself out of the airplane and laid down flat on the ramp. Concerned about her, I asked if everything was ok, only to be met with an ear-to-ear grin as she exclaimed, “that was the best thing ever.!” The flight may have been the best “thing,” but Aleta, you’re the best person ever! Ad astra, save us a seat up there…

  15. Dan,
    I just got the news from Gail. I am heartbroken.
    I love the picture of Aleta and Rufo. Yoji, Beatrice, Aleta with Rufo and I went to the Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin in DC one year. Rufo was wearing a backpack, that had a drinking bowl on one side and his water bottle on the other side. Rufo got just as much attention as the Cherry Blossoms.
    Last time we had a chance to see Aleta was in L.A. at the Japanese Restaurant, where she was showing us the pictures from her last trip to Japan. She loved Japan.
    We are so sorry for your loss.

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