Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I sucked at math and science but at that point it hadn’t hit me that realistically those have a lot to do with it. I thought thick bravado and spacewalk swagger were the only two requirements. There was just something magical about the sky. Being amongst the stars, in the silence of space and far from the noise of the Earth below, seemed like the most peaceful place. Astronauts, I felt, were immortal. They had as Tom Wolfe wrote, “the right stuff” – a mix of bravery, patriotism, and sheer untouchable genius. I wanted to be part of this elite so very badly.
I idolized women like Sally Ride and was fascinated by nebulas and starbursts and black holes and the possibility of discovering life on other planets. I read up on everything that was going on with NASA. I knew the entire history of the program and every new development. I followed space shuttle departures and landings. I could point out the differences between a star and a satellite in the night sky. I could tell you the specifics of the Mercury program, the reason Apollo 1 exploded and the history of all three members of the crew, every shuttle in the current NASA fleet (at the time: Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis and Columbia) and beyond.
I even attended Space Camp in Titusville, Florida and Huntsville, Alabama once at the age of ten and again at twelve using money from my bat mitzvah. I knew how intense the training was and the kind of rigorous physical demands it made on one’s body to be able to be an astronaut. I was weak, with tiny spaghetti arms and a peanut-sized frame. Still, I dreamt of going into space.
Despite the odds against me, I thought if anyone could do it, I could. I had always been a risk taker, suffering three bouts of stitches to the head before the age of five and often getting stuck in the tops of trees in my backyard. Broken arms, broken legs, broken noses, but I kept going back for more, a manifestation of the childish belief in your own infallibility. There was something greater in the unknown realms of space and I wanted it. I wanted to fly. I wanted to float. I wanted to pee into a suction cup and eat freeze-dried foods.
In my youth, I longed for a future like Star Wars with different alien races interacting and planet-hopping akin to today’s average plane ride. I planned out my life on the moon in a glass capsule long before ‘Zenon’ aired. I’d be able to look out my window at any time of day or night and see the stars all around and the Earth looking back. I’d be a part of humanity anew, wiped fresh and clean by moon dust. A whole new world.
I knew about the Challenger disaster but it did not concern me. Though I felt sadness for the lives lost and the setbacks it must have cost the program, I knew advancements had allowed NASA to grow from the experience and that the odds of a similar tragedy happening in my generation were decreasing every day. I wasn’t worried. Plus, I was a kid and I was me. I couldn’t be touched.
When I was in 6th grade, my teacher died when the small plane her husband was flying crashed into the Everglades. The night I found out was Halloween. I was dressed like Fox Mulder from ‘The X-Files’ and carrying a plastic blow-up alien around yelling, “The truth is out there!” instead of “trick or treat!” When my mom came and brought me home, I didn’t sleep and I didn’t cry. I stayed up all night staring at the glow in the dark stars and rocket ships stuck on the ceiling above my bed and listening to my dad watch a football game on TV in the next room.
I was not as immortal as I’d always assumed and I eventually gave up on joining NASA’s ranks. The sky changed from a place of comfort to a place of fear. Even with all the training in the world, people still slip up and kill themselves and those they love. On the ground, at least, you’ve got nowhere to fall.
Four years later, my friend died in an eerily similar plane crash. His younger brother was a freshman in high school when I was a senior and when I’d see him in the hallway, I’d always wonder if he’d ever fly again. I’d wonder if driving by the airport to get to school every day gave him the shivers. I’d wonder how a human being recovers from something like that. It was a different, quieter kind of strength I was admiring now.
Life goes on, I guess. Though my dream of being an astronaut ended, my love for the space program still thrives. I lead my bewildered college roommate around the Washington DC Aeronautics and Space Museum excitedly filling her in on tidbits the display cards may have missed. I signed up for the Space Camp alumni newsletter. I open my homepage to the iGoogle NASA Picture of the Day each morning.
I love space, but Earth has its bravery and its merits. Sometimes the astronauts decide to become writers; the do-ers become the tell-ers. For some people, it never happens. For others, it has to. Children grow up and see the blood of their first injury and learn that the world is not full of astronauts for a reason.