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.

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Tickets, Part I

Things had to be set in motion to make the dream a reality. The most critical of piece was securing the blessing from my wife. After hinting around in the subtlest way I could manage for well over two weeks, all my gentle prodding finally came to fruition.

As she sat in the living room chair one evening, the hoped for statement came rolling out as easily as a wave rising on the shore. “You know, why don’t you take Short Stack to go and see the next Shuttle launch.” Slightly bug-eyed, I tried to play it very safe. Now was not the time to screw things up by acting hastily.

Outwardly, what I believe I said at the time was, “Hmmmm.” as if I was mulling this thought over for the first time rather than the four hundredth and ninth. Inwardly, I’m pretty sure my brain broke into a sweat as I strained to keep from breaking into a spontaneous happy dance right there in there in the living room. It’s not that I didn’t think she would trust me with one of our children far from home and her watchful eye. No, nothing like that. It’s just that Action Girl is not one to voluntarily miss out on something fun. She can barely contain herself if she knows that I have a small gift for her birthday or even if I simply have an entertaining story to relate later on that evening. My wife has a lot of virtues but patience in the fact of impending fun is not one of them. Forgoing an actual vacation that would include palm trees, crisp bed linens, a swimming pool and possibly a beach… well, that’s like waiting for the IRS to send you a letter saying that, hey, why don’t you just keep it all this year. I suppose it might be possible, but you sure as heck don’t bank on it happening.

Even though I’d be going with my three, almost four year old son, it would undoubtedly be a vacation, as well. After all, I’m the stay at home parent in our household and under normal conditions have two miniature people causing chaos around me all day, ever day. Having to wrangle just one is almost like a vacation on its own. I can look back now at my pre-child days and laugh out loud at what I considered to be a busy day. Then we had Short Stack and I thought I knew what busy was. After Lulu Belle came along, I looked back at my time with just one child and laughed again at how I thought that was so hard to do. I’m wiser now. I barely have time to do anything fun and exciting such as sitting down, taking regular showers or making coffee. The idea of adding one or more children to our batch sends me scampering up the trees. Honestly, I know I could do it, but I don’t know how. Personally, I’d rather not think about it.

As I did my best to slowly, “come around” to this idea I cautiously checked her resolve in what might have been a moment of weakness. “Are you sure you’d be okay with this? You wouldn’t mind if I took just him to go and see the Shuttle?” Again, I tried to act as nonchalant as possible while my heart raced at lemming-on-its-third-cappuccino speed.

“Yah, it would be fun for you two. He’s bonkers on rockets and it would be something he’d remember for the rest of his life. I don’t think I’d want to spend that much time looking at rockets as you two would, so it would be better if just you two went. Besides, there aren’t going to be that many more Shuttle launches, are there?”

Here she was completely correct.

The Shuttle had been rolled out when I was just a kid, back in 1981. As a kid playing in the dirt of the school playground, what we were into were rockets. The last Apollo mission had been flown in 1972 and all we had to look up at was something called “Skylab” which sounded a lot like a place to do school work and thus, didn’t interest us much beyond the fact that al agreed that it looked a lot cooler than what the Soviets had with their bulbous Mir. Since the cessation of anything really wowable in the space race, we, the children of the Cold War, tended to look more to the latest high tech bomber or attack submarine for our chest thumping assuredness when it came to America’s ability and know-how. Then… we saw it.

On April 12th of 1981, something very, very noteworthy happened for all to see. STS-1 was launched. As children who were raised on a steady diet of anti-Soviet, Regan fueled, flag waving patriotism, to see this massive and undeniably beautiful spacecraft blast her way into space, well… it was like pouring sugar on an anthill. We all wanted to see it, touch it, ride it… FLY it! She was unlike anything we had seen before and speaking for the eight year old set at Saint Joseph’s Grammar School, we were impressed. Deeply so.

This was STS-1, the first launch of many to come. At the time, we didn’t know what STS stood for (Space Transportation System, by the way) or that this new “Space Shuttle” even had a name beyond the one we’d been told about on television and at school. We knew it as Colombia, but NASA called her OV-102. There had been another before this, OV-100, or in more common parlance, Enterprise but we hadn’t really been paying much attention to that. Enterprise was never meant to fly into space. Her entire job was intended to be as a test bed for what would later become the shuttles built later on. She was never even fitted with engines. The cool tie in name to one America’s favorite Sci-Fi TV shows aside, she just didn’t have the sexy. It was like looking at a full size model of a Lamborghini. Sure, it was kind of neat, but… so? Your average third grader needs more than that. We needed fire! Fire and smoke! Oh, and a really, REALLY loud noise!

Boy, did we get it!

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