Friday, July 08, 2011

The undiscovered country

I found myself in tears this morning, standing in front of the newsroom TV watching the shuttle Atlantis vault into the firmament. And judging by some friend's Facebook posts, I wasn't the only one. Growing up in Central Florida, the shuttle program was part of our lives.

I didn't actually grow up on the Space Coast itself (the whole geographical area taking it's name from NASA's presence), but for a while my family lived in Orlando, which is awfully close--close enough for the sonic booms announcing a shuttle's return to earth to really rattle windows. :) We took school field trips to the Cape, wondering at the size of the rockets on display, often standing in their shade against the Florida heat and savoring the strange texture of the dehydrated ice cream we bought in the gift shop.

I was 7 when the Challenger exploded, and I remember that day. We'd been listening to the launch countdown on a radio in the classroom at Good Shepherd and, when it got close, our teacher, Mrs. Carillo, ushered us out to the front parking lot with the rest of the school, where we gathered whenever a shuttle went up. It was chilly, but bright. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and we all watched as Challenger grew smaller, contrail spreading behind her. When the explosion happened and the solid rocket boosters kept climbing in divergent paths, we knew something had happened; I knew something was wrong. I was old enough to recognize, and I'd seen enough of them to know, that normal shuttle launches didn't look like that. Teachers quickly began herding us back into classrooms, and, once we were there, Mrs. Carillo quickly turned off the radio we'd left on and started us on some assignment. I'm sure we asked questions, and I'm equally sure she reassured us. But I remember her face. She was stunned.

Even after we moved from Orlando to Lakeland, about an hour further west, you could still see the shuttles go up if it was a clear day or night. I couldn't say how many times I'd run into my driveway and look east over the treeline just to see a shuttle fly, offering a prayer for their safe return.

In the wake of Challenger, President Reagan, addressing the nation said "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave." And maybe that's why I cry, even all these years later, especially seeing another shuttle (the last!) make it up safely. The fact that something so large and ungainly can rocket into the heavens, that men and women hazard their lives to ride it and orbit our planet is still a wonder, one I don't think will ever cease.

Jules Verne once asked, "What are the final frontiers in this quest for travel? Will humankind only be satisfied when journeys into space become readily available and affordable?” Star Trek, of course, answered that in it's opening monologue, declaring "Space: the final frontier..." (yes, I watched Star Trek). And good old Jules wasn't far from wrong, really, since there are already some who have taken flights into space simply for the pleasure of it. Of course, those people have the ridiculous amounts of money to pay their way. For the rest of us, recreational space travel is still cost-prohibitive. So I'm sure that's why there have been so many movies, books and TV shows about space exploration, why, despite the dangers and the losses, so many still effort. We dream of space, probably since so few of us have actually been there, and there are a myriad of mysteries it still holds. But perhaps one day...

In the mean time, may Atlantis and her crew come back to Earth safely.

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