Arrival. Part IV

I sifted through the pile of debris in the trunk that was our baggage and I managed to produce a good set of clothes for my boy, our one man tent, the stroller and all other provisions for the adventure at hand. Casting sideways looks at our soon to be Shuttle watching contemporaries, I could see the same ballet being undertaken at hundreds of cars around us. Careful unpacking, sleepy children in strollers waiting as patently as they could or simply sleeping through the entire process and adults looking somewhere between excited and exhausted.

“Is it going to launch soon?” Short Stack was craning his head around at the quickly filling parking lot and taking the odd, weary glance skyward lest he miss the whole show that we had traveled so far to see.

“NO!” I laughed a little bit when I considered the next six and a half hours that we needed to get through before things started, then realized that “soon” was all relative and that I probably ought to elaborate if I was to avoid potentially crushing some heavily stoked hopes. “Well… yes.” I stopped unpacking for a second so we could face each other. “It’s going to launch today, but it’s going to be many hours until that time. The astronauts are probably still getting ready for their mission. The Shuttle too! They need to finish filling up the external fuel tank, check all the systems and make sure everything is safe and ready to go. It takes a lot of people a lot of time and hard work to make a Shuttle launch happen.”


It’s amazing how a four year old can reduce the world to one question.

“Why, what?”

“Why does it take so many people so long?”

This was one of those parenting moments where what you want to say is, “Because” and let it go at that. Being right in the middle of our preparations for the night, the last thing I wanted was to have my attention divided and allow for the line at the door to grow ever longer in our absence or worse, give my brain the slight hiccup it requires that would allow it to forget some crucial part of our cargo such as the tent, the tickets or my name and address. Sadly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t seem to take much. I’ve also learned, however that pat answers do not work with my son and that he WILL call you on them.

“Well… Because the Space Shuttle is a very complicated piece of equipment. There are thousands and thousands of little parts that have to work exactly right just when they are supposed to and they all need to work together. People called engineers check every single last part of the Shuttle, its boosters, the launch tower and everything to make sure it’s all in perfect order.”

Without a pause, he asked the question I had just unwittingly opened my self up to.

“What happens if it doesn’t all work just right?”

That was a question I didn’t really want to get too close to, first because it could mean that we came all the way to Florida only to have the mission canceled but secondly, because it brought up a darker issue.

What I said was, “Then they delay the launch, fix the problem and try again later.” But what I thought was, “Challenger…” and the unexpected eruption of that memory right in the middle of all this fun and excitement caught me as off guard as being hit by a car in the middle of the dessert. In my mind, all I could see right then was grill and headlights.

Tonight, we had come to watch OV-104 “Discovery” lift off and from this time forward, to my son, it was likely to always remain “his” Shuttle. It would be the one that he saw fly with his own eyes. It would mean the most to him for the rest of his life. He’d have that connection. Long, long ago, I was a young boy too wrapped in the awe of the Shuttle program and I had also picked my own Shuttle. The one that, for my own reasons, I had considered “mine” was Challenger. I swallowed hard as the memory of that long forgotten fact flooded back through unseen doorways, unbidden.

Prior to the Challenger disaster of 1986, NASA had had a hugely successful run with their Shuttle fleet of two. Columbia had been the first, fully functional Space Shuttle or OV (Orbital Vehicle) and was designated OV-102, being constructed after OV-101 Enterprise, which had been outfitted only as a test bed aircraft without engines or heat shield and was intended to determine if this 230,000 pound glider could actually do what the engineers and designers had said it could. It was a radical departure in design and theory for the space agency and chocked full of unknowns and previously untried ideas.

Like any technological breakthrough, it was crammed with “firsts”, and as we all know, firsts are risky things. It was the first reusable space vehicle. It was the first to be flown with a real crew for its maiden voyage. It was the first to be covered in the now famous heat resistant tiles. It had a giant robot arm and that monstrously cavernous cargo bay. It was the first time that astronauts looked directly ahead at where they are going when the countdown reached zero. Engineers love the idea of firsts but when it comes time to try them out, they get understandably jumpy. America’s rocket scientists had just spent better than the last twenty years perfecting the art of balancing human beings on the tips of progressively larger and larger rockets and bring those humans back in one piece, and to be fair, they had gotten very, very good at it. For NASA, now to adopt the Shuttle program was the equivalent of taking the playbook, throwing it away and tossing the lot of them back into uncharted waters. Lots of people even within the Space Program were highly skeptical that this was a good path to take.

It was different.

Many of then feared it.

Kids loved it.

I know I did!

It was our ROCKET PLANE and it fascinated and thrilled us.

Now, as I stood at the handles of our red umbrella stroller, my own little astronaut in training sitting happily in its canvas seat, that long faded enthusiasm was coming back to life. As color rushed back into old dreams, I was re-experiencing the excitement, but with the knowledge of some of the costs that were paid along the way, I felt the sadness too. Short Stack knew nothing of these costs and my stomach knotted up a bit as I tried to figure out when he should find out. This was, after all, his dream vacation and he is only four. Who am I to bring up such a hard and unmoving fact?

The answer is simple enough. I’m his father. And so, I feel that it does indeed fall to me… But not just now. Though I have sworn to myself never to tell him an untruth, that does not mean that I am obligated to speak it all. Especially right now.

“Are we ready to go NOW, Dad?”

I hooked into that impatient enthusiasm and tilted the stroller back on its rear wheels and smiled down at his upside down face. “Alright Buddy! I think we’ve got everything.” I locked the car and joined the happy hoards as we rolled toward the gate, the crowd funneling to a pinch point as the doors to the main entrance opened wide. Following a refreshingly short wait in a quickly moving line, I fumbled for our ticket and had the chance to hand them over to the less than enthusiastic woman at the turn stile.

“Tickets…” A robot like hand from a tired looking woman was extended toward me and, in true “like me” fashion, I managed to drop both of them at my feet. Apologizing, I stooped to retrieve them only to find on my return to the vertical that she hadn’t moved an inch and was still staring blankly ahead, hand still extended. She could have been a mannequin.

“Sorry! Here they are.” I handed them over.

“Go through here,” She motioned mechanically to a stile-less opening intended for wheelchairs and stroller pushing parents “and wait at the metal detectors.”

We’re going to see the SPACE SHUTTLE!”

The announcement had, naturally, come from my son and to my surprise, our security robot looked down, donned a weak but sincere smiled and no doubt for the six-hundredth time that evening replied, “Well, you’re in the right place for it. Have fun.” And with that bit of encouragement, we headed on to checkpoint two and three.


4 Responses

  1. I remember where I was when I heard the news of the Challenger’s demise. Some things are burned so deep into memory it becomes a part of you.

    9/11 was just a month after Scout’s 3rd birthday. It was a few years before he became conscious of it. Not because we lied to him, but sometimes we need to protect our kids from the burdens that belong in the adult consciousness. I didn’t want him living in fear that a plane would crash into his daycare or our house. We still don’t turn on the evening news while the kids are around… murder, mayhem, rape… it’s my job to raise them secure in their environment.

    • Yah. I know what you mean. The tricky part is when they start to figure things and events out on their own. Explanation time is never fun or easy. It’s one of those parent duties that I never really thought about much until I had my own and they started asking why.

  2. Yeah! I get two installments tonight!

    note: actually I don’t know what happens with this shuttle business: it just doesn’t make the news most places in the world.

    • I can imagine. It barely makes it here! Only now that the program is coming to an end are the news people starting to cover it, which is a shame because it’s AWESOME!

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