The Long Trail to Happiness

When Action Girl and I decided to have children, one of the things that I couldn’t wait for was to find out what their “thing” would be. Everybody’s got a “thing.” At least, every kid seems to. I think a lot of adults forget their passions when they get lost in adolescence and are forced to focus on areas of academia where minimal interest resides. That and peer pressure, of course. There is no cleanser more astringent than the scorn of your contemporaries. So many childhood passions are lost through these effects and I wanted to be a powerful force in the corner of my children’s imagination versus the rest of the world. The older I become, the more sure I am that a person’s true strength lies directly within the sphere of their passions.

Thomas Jefferson once said that a man who loves his work never works another day, and I think that’s about right. He also said that he was all about freedom and yet owned slaves, so I’ll grant you, you do have to keep an eye on TJ. Still though…

My son, Short Stack showed his cards early on. There was a brief flirtation with trucks, which is far from unusual for small children, but that had ended pretty abruptly the moment he saw his first rocket.

I believe he was two and a half.

He’s six now and has been focused like a laser on his own personal prize since the day he realized that that he could have something to do with them. Like any parent, I ask my kids every so often what they want to do for a job when they grow up, just to test the waters and see where the wind has shifted in the previous weeks. Last week, Short Stack’s answer was, “I want to build propulsion systems for new kinds of rockets.”

Oooooh kay.

My four year old daughter, Lulu Belle though, is a very, VERY different little critter. She want’s to be a cowgirl.

Or maybe a fairy.

Nope… a cowgirl.

Or princess.

Maybe a cowgirl princess?

But Pirates are good too!

Hey, dad. Did pirates ever play with cowboys?

Tell you what, dad. You be Dale Evans and I’ll be Roy Rogers.

YEE-HAW!

(I love the fact that I somehow wind up being Dale. Better than being assigned Pat Brady, I suppose.)

And that’s about how it goes. She loves playing dress-up from her considerable pile of costumes she’s amassed and they all get a work out, but the cowboy hat, vest, sheriff’s badge and pink handled six shooter get by far the heaviest work out.

The fact that we can not possibly live farther away from the Western Plains and still be within the boundaries of the contiguous United States only adds to the perplexity on how this all got started. To the best of my knowledge, I never pushed the cowboy lifestyle to my children, but Lulu Belle seems to have embraced it with a fervor previously reserved only for children born between 1940 and 1955. When it comes to requested video entertainment from my young daughter, it’s usually black and white episodes of the Lone Ranger or the much loved, Roy Rogers. She knows all the names of the characters, their horses, origin stories and will back them up with her own cap gun when things get tough.

Clayton Moore would be proud.

So now, I know. Lulu Belle wants to be a cowgirl. I’m not sure how this translates into a life for her, let alone an income stream, but we can deal with those details later. What I do know is that right now, it makes her the happiest. When her brother discovered his love of aerospace, I pandered like hell to it. His room is an homage to NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Shuttle program. When he was four, I took him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the shuttle Discovery take off. I’ve tried as hard as I could to feed him what he craves the most in the hopes that it will allow him to be as happy as he can be.

Now it’s time for sister.

The trick is, since the 1960’s have long since ridden off into the sunset, finding good cowboy material has gotten substantially trickier. We watch the old shows on YouTube. We dress up in cowboy gear, though some of it has to be manufactured right here in our little house due to scarcity in the market. We talk in cowboy-ese and naturally, she has her very own Wonder Horse! You remember those, right? The giant plastic horse mounted on a frame by means of exceptionally squeaky springs.

If there is anything she loves more than pretending to be a cowgirl, it’s making up stories, (Can you guess what they tend to be about?) and this has now spilled over into bedtime. For the last little while now, once the bedtime books are all read and the light is out, she’s hit me with a request which I find hard to pass up. She wants a story, as she puts it, “You tell me. Not from a book.”

I’ve told her stories about me growing up. I’ve told her stories about things her Mom’s done. I’ve told her fables as best as I can recall my Aesop. The thing is, if you don’t have a theme, it’s hard to pull up a good story on the fly. That’s when she pointed out the elephant in the bedroom.

“Dad. Tell me a story about a cowgirl!”

It took a minute or two for me cook up the basics, and an additional night for us to ascribe names to the players, but we’ve gotten it worked out pretty well now.

In a valley in Wyoming, sits a small ranch. The road that runs in front of it will take you to town. The paths that lead away from the ranch will take you to the high pasture and then on to the aspen forest. Another path goes to the pond while a third leads to Big Rock, which has a breathtaking view of the valley below. To the West, the Rocky Mountains tower, capped in snow. The inhabitants of the ranch are a girl of unspecified age named Annie and her Horse, Thunder. Thunder, naturally, lives in the big red barn next to the corral. There’s also a shed where Annie keeps her tools.

Now all she needs is a friend. Enter some occupation diversity.

In our very first story, I also introduced Piper and Scout. Piper has short, red hair and lives in Colorado. Scout is her trusty, silver airplane with the big blue stripe that goes all the way down each side. They met when Piper got lost and had to land at the ranch for directions as the evening closed in. Naturally, Annie invited her to stay for dinner and the night and the two have been best friends ever since.

Sometimes the stories are just about Annie and Thunder. Sometimes they’re just about Piper and Scout, but her favorite stories include them all.

It’s still trick to come up with a believable and engaging story arc off the top of my head, but I must confess, I think I’m enjoying them just as much as she is. With each evening of me kneeling on the floor next to her bed in the darkened room, the world of Annie and Piper gets more and more vibrant. We now know about the fixed hole in the barn roof, how long it takes to ride to town and the tree Annie chopped down up in the aspen forest. Last night, I couldn’t help my self and after my little cowgirl was asleep, I sat down and wrote out that night’s story.

I’ll share it with you, if you’d like… But you have to wait for bedtime.

A Bedtime Story for a Five Year Old Space Nut

This evening, my little boy, Short Stack asked me for something different after we had read our books and switched out the light. He’s the master of all bedtime delay tactics and so, over the years, I’ve grown pretty much invulnerable to his attempts to stay up an hour past lights out. It’s been a struggle which can best be summed up as irresistible force meets immovable father. On some evenings, it can make for some serious opera. Tonight though, he hit below the belt.

“Dad, will you tell me a story before you go?”

“Oh… Um… A real one or one I make up?” He doesn’t ask me for spoken stories much. Just reading from books, really.

“One you make up. Tell me a story about anything you want to. Just make it all up.” That request has never happened before. Not even once.

I crumbled.

I thought a moment as I sat on the rug by his bed in the darkness of his happy little room. “Okay. Here it goes…”

Once there was a little boy, who wanted nothing more in the world than to go to space.
He loved the idea of riding a rocket and floating along above the earth.

One day, he decided to do something about it.

He called NASA.

“Hello.” He said. “I am a little boy who loves rockets. I want to go to outer space. Can I ride there on one of your rockets?”

“We think that’s a great goal for your future!” said the man from NASA. “But you’re too young to ride on one of our rockets just yet. First you need to grow up and work very hard and study to become an astronaut. Then, you could ride on our rockets.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone.

He had another plan. He called Russia.

“Hello” said the little boy. “Is this the Russian Space Agency?”

“Da.” said the voice on the other end of the phone, which means, “Yes” in Russian.

“I love rockets and space,” said the boy. “And though I might be young, I would like very much to ride on one of your Soyuz rockets to get there. May I fly to space with you?”

“Ah…” said the hesitant voice. “Nyet.” which means “No” in Russian. “First, you must be older and study vith all your might. Den, eef you haf vorked hard enough, you might become a cosmonaut and ride into space on a Soyuz rocket.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone again

He had another plan. He went to the basement.

In the basement, he started to rummage and search. He found metal and screws. He found wood and paint. Piles of pipes, knobs, valves, wires and lights. He dusted off tanks and straps, nuts, bolts and glass, and started to build. He wasn’t old, that was true, but he did know how to work hard and smart and after some time, he stood back to look at his work.

Any astronaut from NASA or cosmonaut from Russia would have been far too big to fit inside, but that was okay, because it hadn’t been built for them. It was made just to fit one small boy.

Upstairs he went to pack himself up a sandwich, some peanuts and a juice box or two, and brought them all back to his space ship. He opened the bulked doors, pointed his ship at the sky and then carefully climbed in.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 “ignition sequence start” 5, 4, 3, 2…

He never got to 1. He was too busy yelling, “Wooooooooo HOOOOOOOO!”

Up into the sky he raced! Clouds flashed past like blurs and the power of the tiny rocket pushed him deep into his seat. The roar was thunderous and the whole ship shook as he flashed along toward the edge of the sky. And then… silence. Outside the window turned black except for the bright and brilliant stars. Below him, the earth slowly turned.

He was in space!

The boy took out his lunch and ate it carefully. He took extra care not to make crumbs with his sandwich and though his peanuts tended to float everywhere, he ate most of them too, even the one that got stuck for a moment in his left ear. The juice boxes he slurped dry so as not to let any droplets of apple juice float free. As he enjoyed his meal, he gazed out at the most amazing view few ever get to see, and he smiled broadly at the joy of it all.

After eating, even with his amazing view, he was starting to feel sleepy. What he really wanted, he realized, was a nap. His problem was that his spaceship was too small to stretch out in. What he needed, was some room. He began to look around. Out in the far off distance, just above the horizon, he saw something. At first, he thought it was a satellite, but it looked too big. As it got closer, it grew bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER! It was huge! “That,” thought the boy “would be the perfect place!”

As carefully as he could, the little boy nudged his ship up to the Space Station. Ever so gently, he brought it up to an airlock door and with perfect precision, docked. He pumped air into the airlock, turned the handle and opened the door. Inside the space station, cosmonauts and astronauts looked up with amazement as the little boy floated in and said, “Hello! I always wanted to go to space, but everyone told me that I had to grow up first and work very hard. Well… I know how to work hard and study. I just didn’t really want to wait. So here I am. Could I stay a while and perhaps stretch out to have a rest?”

The crew on the space station was so impressed with what the little boy had done, that they happily let him in and gave him a sleeping bag to nap in. They tucked him in, Velcroed him to a wall, just like they did, and left him to dream as he floated in happiness.

After waking up a few hours later, he eagerly joined the crew doing experiments around the station. He chatted with them all and looked out the windows and reveled in the joy of being in space. Finally, after sharing their dinner, he realized that he really should be getting back home. By now, his parents would be getting worried. And so, his new friends helped him back to his ship, re-supplied him with juice boxes and snacks, closed the airlock door and bid him a safe return home.

Aiming his ship back toward his house, the boy streaked across the sky like a shooting star. Hotter and hotter his ship grew as it fell through the atmosphere and the wind roared past the windows with the sound of a jet engine. Finally, when the moment was right, POP! Out came the parachute and lower and slower he went until softly and with a slight bounce, he landed… right in the old elm tree in his very own front yard. It took him some time to climb down safely.

When the boy opened the front door to his house, there stood his parents, arms crossed and brows furrowed.

“Where have you BEEN? We’ve been looking for you everywhere! We were so worried!”

“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. I’ve been to space and it took longer than I expected. I even visited the Space station!” His parents didn’t look pleased.

“You shouldn’t tell stories, you know. We need to know we can trust you. Don’t make things up like that, please. Just tell us the truth.”

So, without a word, the boy took them each by the hand and led them out the door and simply pointed to the top of the tree. There, cradled in the upper branches, sat the spaceship, too small for a grown-up, but just right for a little boy who loved space and knew how to work hard. And they knew in that second, that he had told the truth.

“How was that?” I could see, even in the grey dim light, that he was smiling right up to his ears.

“That was great, Dad.”

“Good night, Buddy. I love you.”

Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”

…What?

In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.

_______

It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.

Liftoff!

When one pitches a campsite, the first thing you don’t think is, “I’ll set up right here next to the porta-potties!” What you want is a not too far, but not to near sort of geography s as to avoid all the joy of being potentially down wind but also within sprinting distance when needed. This instance definitely called for some serious sprinting.

Looking at the throng of tightly packed space junkies anticipating imminent rocket fueled bliss, I realized that there was only one way this was going to happen fast enough if we were to see the launch ourselves and not merely hear it through the thin plastic walls of a pubic toilet. Throwing on our shoes and grabbing my son under my arm, I bolted through the crowd, weaving between the darkened shapes and preying that I wouldn’t slip on the grass. The entire way there, I tried very hard to ride the edge of being encouraging to my son about being quick with his business and explaining in bare terms how bad it would be to miss the Shuttle because he was not focusing. Sort of a carrot AND stick approach. Thankfully, with only a few minutes to go, there was at least no line to contend with! A very few minutes later, we were back at our outpost and waiting like the rest for the rocket science to noisily begin.

The night before, I had received a bit of photographic advice from my playground chatting companion, Tom.

“When the moment comes, don’t take pictures of the shuttle taking off.”

“Really?” The idea seemed sort of… killjoyish.

“Nah. Resist! Any pictures that you take will look just like any pictures that anyone here will take. Plus, it’s hard to keep in frame, especially at night and you’ll spend that great moment looking through your viewfinder rather than looking at the liftoff. Shoot a movie instead and rather than point it at the launch the whole time, point it at your son and you. I’ve seen a lot of these launches since we moved to Florida and I’ll tell you, for me, the best part is the look on everyone’s face. That’s where you see the magic.”

That was some pretty solid reasoning.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try it.”

And so, with things at Launch Control progressing as it should; with the astronauts strapped in and ready for the moment and with uncounted thousands watching and waiting, I set my little camera to movie mode, held it out at arms length and pressed play. It was show time!

Panning the camera around the dark sky, I looked for things that would stand out and would be recognizable before the event. It was hard enough to see with the naked eye and my less than top of the like, point and shoot digital camera was having some serious issues finding anything that it could focus on. Turning clockwise where I stood, I passed over the well lit rocket garden, its inhabitants standing like proud sentinels to the history they beheld. Turning further the horizon went again to blackness and then eventually, to a well lit and very large structure off a little way in the distance. It was something that we hadn’t gone to visit yet and in all honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, at least on this trip: The Space Mirror Memorial. The monument to those who have fallen on their way to the stars.

Right there, in the middle of all the excitement, a cold, damp wave passed through me and I remembered with a void in my stomach, what could go wrong. Now, here I was with Short Stack, ready to watch and hope that he didn’t get to witness anything like the footage that I, first as a child and then later as an adult, had seen over and over again.

Challenger.

Columbia.

There have been many more lost in the pursuit of space than just those fourteen souls, but at the moment, they were on my mind and I consciously worked at pushing the thought away, focusing instead on the moment, our moment, of happiness.

I panned back to the stage and the giant screen with the video feed.

As the thump of circling government helicopters reverberated through the air, the loudspeaker boomed. “The final test of the flight control surfaces is being conducted.” On the screen, massive rudders swung back and forth to check movement followed by the engine cones themselves swiveling on their gimbals. It was all looking good.

“T Minus three minutes, fifteen seconds remaining…”

Short Stack, now lifted to my shoulders and enjoying the best viewing I could personally provide, was uncharacteristically quiet. He may be a lot of things, but the quiet type, he is not. Naturally, I couldn’t see him but I guessed that after all we had been through and with all that was now happening, he might be a tad out of touch with what was about to transpire. To him, I surmised, it might look as though the stage in front of us was the show, and what a horrifying let down THAT would be! I decided to do some explaining while I could.

“The Shuttle is going to take off right over there, Buddy. Right over those trees!”

Silence. His grip on my ears told me that he wasn’t asleep, but probably just overwhelmed.

“But…” He was coming up to speed now, “the Space Shuttle is right over there.” I followed the point of a small pudgy finger to the giant TV that stood next to the stage. He could see the Shuttle there. Where I had indicated was simply a black row of trees. I could understand the confusion.

“That’s a picture. The real Shuttle is over that way.” I pointed again.

“T Minus two minutes, twenty seconds and counting…”

We all watched the video feed avidly, not daring to blink or hope that the countdown would actually get to zero. I could feel my heart actually beating faster and the chatter that had filled the field just a few minutes ago quickly ebbed as if turned down on some unseen stereo. It was just the audio link from Launch Control now and the interjections of quick explanations from our astronaut on stage.

“Ninety seconds away from the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.”

BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE! BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE!

My pocket was talking to me. Well, actually, my cell phone.

Do I look? Do I not?
Look?
Don’t? Gah!

It was still pre-dawn. It had to be family. Giving in to curiosity I balanced Short Stack on my shoulders and with my camera-free hand, fumbled out my phone and looked at the waiting text message.

It was my wife.

“Watching too!!!”

I smiled, popped it back in my pocket and looked back to the action.

“T minus one minute, and counting. We are now transferring to orbiter internal power. Discovery is now running on its three onboard fuel cells. T minus thirty-eight seconds and counting. Coming up on a go for auto-sequence start.”

At this point, standing in the face of hundreds of tons and billions of dollars of high technology, I suddenly regressed to a primitive belief… and crossed my fingers. I doubted it would help, but if nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt.

Launch Control: Go for auto-sequence start.

Up front, our astronaut in the spot light was visibly getting excited, obviously reliving his own experience and living it again, vicariously through those seven in their orange flight suits who were strapped in for the ride of their lives. “T minus twenty seconds! GET READY!” Thundering through the sound system, you could actually hear the grin on his face. A handful of seconds later: “We have a go for main engine start!” Sparks lit up the screen and briefly illuminated the heads of those standing with us showing to good effect that the astronaut on stage was not alone at having a smile plastered over his face.

Remembering my possibly bewildered child perched high on my back, I tried to help fill him in, but words started to fail me. As the emotion of the moment started to take control, my own childhood, still living deep inside me, began to reemerge. I was a kid too. I was looking at the Shuttle, about to take off! As I stood there, then, I felt as though I my age could have been measured in the single digits again and I was taken by surprise as I actually began to tear up. “There is goes!” Was all I could muster.

“Main Engine Ignition!”

and a rumbling roar.

3…

2…

1…

LIFTOFF!

“Lift off of Discovery, blazing a trail into…” Ignoring the rest, I swung us around to where a sunrise sized fireball had started to light the horizon. As the source came into view and the thunder began to endlessly roll, I totally lost it.

I yelled, “AND THERE SHE GOES!” at the top of my lungs.

With nothing else to intelligibly add, I simply broke into wild laughter in the pure exuberance of the moment. It was an expression of the purest joy and exhilaration.

I was someplace else.

Six or seven seconds later when the concussive thud of the engines blasted over us, I began to laugh all over again. It was like being submerged by a rolling wave of sound and I, and everyone else there, bared our teeth into the storm and reveled in it.

Being There, Part II

In our little blue hued bubble, my consciousness surfaced and submerged like the bow of a submarine in heavy seas. Below, all was quiet, calm and where I seemed to belong. Above though, no matter what the noise and harshness, was where the action undeniably was. It was the reason we were here and only with caution did I let my mind wander just under the waves. One eye partially opening, I’d check on my boy, then the clock on my cell phone, then drift back off for a few precious minutes. Only perhaps sixty feet away, stood the bandstand and with the guest astronaut, framed by steamer trunk sized speakers on poles carrying, at three-zillion decibels, his explanations of what exactly was happening at that moment. Again, I am stunned at what one can sleep through when your tank is truly empty.

The gigantic part of my brain that loves and lives for minutia dearly wanted me to perk up and listen to his every word our resident expert had to say. He was an actual Shuttle astronaut after all, a commander even, and I’m sure what he was saying was fascinating stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I tuned out the earth shaking voice and snoozed off for another fifteen minute dive into the abyss and recharged as much as I could.

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Eyes snapping open, I grabbed by cell phone and looked at the time.

6:00 AM

Liftoff was scheduled for 6:22. Plenty of time to get Short Stack up and functional, I hoped. Unzipping the tent flap, I peered out into a still dark sky. Dawn wasn’t due until after launch time and things looked much as they did when we crawled in less than three hours ago. Except one thing: The energy.

Everywhere I looked, people whom had previously seemed to exist only as lumps under wet blankets or decorative, if not over sized picnic table centerpieces, had come to life and were milling about now. Things had definitely started to move. The hum of it was in the air and the level of chatter had risen audibly. Great things were afoot and we all knew it.

The excitement was building.

“As you might already know,” Our astronaut M.C. was still going strong with his monologue and somehow had managed to speak nearly continuously since two in the morning. “ …the Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and a new module as well. Well, it’s such a beautiful night tonight that if we’re lucky, we MIGHT just get a look at it a few minutes before liftoff. It will be rising just over the rockets in the Rocket Garden and be heading almost directly overhead and then in the direction of the launch pad.”

At my elbow, in all his angelic cuteness, Short Stack snored on. Seeing the Shuttle was a fantastic opportunity but to be able to see the ISS too? That was the proverbial cherry on the cake. I didn’t want him to miss that. It was time to do the unthinkable and wake my sleeping child.

“Hey, Buddy. Time to get up.”

As gently as I could I began to rouse him. Though notoriously hard to get to go to sleep in the evenings… every evening in fact, getting him up is another thing entirely. The kid starts as cold as any fully fledged teen could ever dream. It’s going to be impossible when he has had another ten years or so to perfect his armor of unconsciousness.

“Come on, Short Stack. It’s Shuttle time.”

His eyes pop open like blinds on a window… only to then sink fluidly back down to fully closed.

“Hey… Let’s get up. There’s something special going on here! Hup! Hup! Hup!”

A few tries more and some wounded looks from my son at the indignity of being woken up six or seven times in the span of a couple of minutes and we eventually found ourselves out side in the cool night air once again. The astro-announcer continued on with a decoding of the radio feed that was piped in from launch control and the Shuttle crew. To the right of the stage a massive TV, easily bigger than a king sized bed sheet, had been switched on to give us all the view we so badly wished we could have but was obscured by trees and distance.

“We’re looking good here, folks! So far, we are ‘Go’ for launch!” Another string of codes and system checks cracked by, meaningless to me, but quickly explained away by our resident expert… and then…

A problem.

I didn’t quite catch what it was, but there was a problem.

Somewhere, buried deep inside some obscure part of the literal tons and tons of technology that makes up the Shuttle, one of the tens of thousands of bits of science and engineering failed.

“Hold on folks. There’s an issue here.”

My heart sank. This was EXACTLY what I was afraid of. We had come all this way. We had pushed so hard. It had all been just… PERFECT, and now, now I was going to have to explain to my sleepy little boy why he wasn’t going to get to see the launch. That exact thought seemed to be traveling through everyone’s mind and all around me. No one seemed to breath, let alone, spoke. This group of space fanatics whom surrounded us stood stock still in the wet grass, eyes riveted to the jumbo-tron video feed and ears cocked to listen to a message, any message, from Launch Control.

The radio had gone spookily quiet.

What would they say?!

“This could be a potential launch delay right here.” It was our astronaut breaking in to snap the spell we had collectively been enthralled by. “They need to decide if this will halt things tonight or if they can still fly with this issue.”

A low groan rolled across the field and he immediately tried to save the enthusiasm.

“It’s not a given, though! There are sub-systems that might be able to take up the slack here. What they’re doing right now in Launch is trying to decide what to do. We could still go forward if they think it’s safe.”

I was a good attempt, but I don’t think any of us dared to believe him.

Quietly at first, we could here some unintelligible talking whispering through the loud speakers again. Somewhere, someone had queued a microphone, but hadn’t spoken yet. Far way from that mic, thousands of lips were nervously chewed and fists clenched.

I actually crossed my fingers.

Then the big voice spoke. “ Systems will be rerouted to secondary. Launch will continue as scheduled.”

The woman giving the run down on the radio at Launch, who ever she was, must have heard our collective cheer! There was only one thing that could have been louder, and that was now officially on track to happen in just a few more minutes. The relief was punctuated almost immediately by the yell from the podium.

“THERE IT IS! RIGHT THERE!”

It was our astronaut again, and in unison, our heads snapped up to scan the sky. Somehow, even with all the light pollution from the surrounding floods and displays, you couldn’t have missed it. Above us in an inky and starless sky hung a fat half moon and toward it rushed a brilliant point of white. It was the Space Station. It was right there for us all to see and with an audible gasp from the group, it passed directly in front of that beautiful, perfect half moon.

It was a magical experience. Within a minute or so, it had passed right on by and disappeared over the horizon to be chased down by our Shuttle crew. That was where they were going. They’d just have to catch it first.

“Did you see that, Buddy? Did you see that speck? That’s the Space Station! The Space Shuttle will dock with in once it gets to space!” I was having difficulty now dividing my attention between my own geeky nature and my duties as a responsible parent. I wanted to make sure that he was getting this, but I was neck deep in my own revelry.
“Dad?”

“Yah, Bud. What is it?” I smiled at him with the thrill of the moment.

“I have to pee real bad.”

Oh…. you have GOT to be kidding me!

Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

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