When I was eight, I decided to be an astronaut. I wrote to NASA. Wasn’t real mail exciting? They sent me a whole packet of information the way the shuttle worked from toilets to booster rockets. I devoured every word.
Through my elementary school years, I was a great scientist. I mixed household substances to create various “formulas,” collected worms, and fantasized about being an astronaut. To be weightless! I couldn’t imagine anything better. I knew I had a slight claustrophobia issue (like tiny caves and being buried alive nightmares), but I didn’t think that would stop me.
My parents took me to the space center several times growing up. I even got to see a satellite launched. I didn’t understand what a satellite was. I just knew that there were no people on the thing we saw zooming up to the sky. And I remember that the sky was huge, and people were sitting on their cars, like the fourth of July.
My parents bought me a little toy space shuttle, and I flew it around my room and opened and closed the bay doors, regularly inspecting the little black plastic elements inside it, and wondering what they represented.
I was in art class when the Challenger exploded. We were listening to the launch on the radio in that room with all the brilliant art class smells: tangy tempera paints, wet wood from slopped over water cans, Elmer’s glue, and the metallic, thin scent of watercolors. Our teacher seemed upset that day. I didn’t understand why. I thought surely if the thing had blown up, there must not have been any people on it. It must have been just a satellite. I had been told about the teacher being on there, but death before old age was so outside my experience, I couldn’t believe it.
To be an astronaut, I think, is to be completely controlled, completely free. I still wanted to be an explorer, after I gave up on being an astronaut. And I still wanted to be free. I still loved to be in the water, which is closest to being weightless, or in utero, and completely peaceful.
Every time I’ve heard about the end of the shuttle missions, it makes me sad. The space shuttle meant we went into space all the time, like a normal thing, and only Americans had them. We were leaders. What would the next step be after the space shuttle? Wild, imaginative theories were presented in my NASA publications.
Now it seems there is no next step. We’ll just hitch a ride with the Russians. It’s okay for other people to do things, but it feels like we’ve stepped into a holding pattern, instead of stepping ahead. Without dreams of space travel, the world seems a lot heavier.