As a kid, I took to the leftover dream of space and science as to the woods, or sparking pool water. The brilliant men with their slide rules and mastery of numbers dazzled with the machines that would one day take us to the unreal worlds I saw in Bradbury and LeGuin. I had a hard time separating what was NASA’s reality of putt-putt rockets and long waits with warp drive and simple, dramatic plotlines. Conflating fantasy with reality is a hallmark of childhood; growing up is how successful you are in sorting that out.
In Canada, where everything is glazed and green with surreal power, I remember being seven and flipping between the few channels we could manage in near-rural Ontario. One channel featured a classic example of the locally-produced kid’s show, a studio filled with bleachers of yelling kids and a small menagerie of barely competent thespians in the cheapest costumes their wives could throw together. Called something like Rocketship Seven, it featured a pop-culture space theme, the main man in a silvery suit who introduced cartoons and did little bits. The only things I remember well are this square-jawed, rail thin Canadian in his silver suit and the opening and bumpers, which were all stock footage of Apollo rockets roaring skyward. At the same time, another channel had Star Trek reruns.
Flipping between the two was jarring. Captain Kirk, Spock and Bones encountered the fantastic and resolved conflict–or not–within an expansive, exhilarating universe: computers spoke and gizmos imparted deific, if often frustrated, powers. Rocketship brought up other video and articles I had read about the space program. The Apollo rockets, the three astronauts in their tiny tin cans, their weird lumbering hops on a barren, brilliant desert, had adult meaning: their motivation and accomplishments were extended and obtuse, their importance obscure. Giant white men stood and shook hands and did white man things where I was supposed to stay quiet and out of the way. Aircraft carriers and military was involved, things which from an early age made me suspicious. Star Trek had its Federation, but it was an abstraction without the gravity of soldiers. My eight-year-old mind wanted the real to be more like the fantasy, because even then I knew the difference, and found fantasy preferable. Maybe it was the Technicolor.
I don’t remember when I became aware of the Space Shuttle, but I remember news reports about the Enterprise Shuttle, the unspaceworhty craft meant only for flight testing. I knew that Shuttle had nothing to do with the television show, but thought the adult use of conflation natural and unconcerning. I was eager for my space exploration era the way innocent boys in the past fantasized about “their war”. Posters appeared detailing how the spacecraft worked, touting its technical wonders and future promise. Adults questioned the value of the space program or were in general disinterested. Kids my own age thought my interest incomprehensible or stupid.
The Shuttle’s first launches were always very early and always on Sunday, it seemed. I remember setting my alarm and missing one, then getting up for another. Walter Cronkite and two other luminaries sat on an overlook at walked through the countdowns, the holds and pauses, the scrubs. Even now I can remember my excitement as the last planned hold passed and the clock kept counting, pushed along by my will alone. Second by second the time went down to when the future would start.
Our Zenith TV showed in brilliant color how bright it was, the weird echoing roar as the engines opened their white-hot throats, and the then white-tanked Shuttle, its points and roundnesses and wings, leaping away as if shot from a bow. It kept going. The new world was here. And then, oddly to me, there was nothing to show besides smoke trailing upwards, dissociated scenes of the control room, Walter and company talking it through. The real was real like waiting for the bus or being told no again and I fell asleep.
Following the space program was difficult. After endless hand-wringing and excoriation over the heat shield tiles falling off, the Space Shuttle might as well have been invisible. The 1980s media were not much interested, and by the time I was in middle school news of launches and missions was deep inside the newspaper, if at all. Magazines delivered news months late after events had already happened, though mostly the news was of delays or cancellations. Science classrooms had old posters and the teachers didn’t know anything, wanted to know why you were interested in that, asked probing questions about drugs. Everyone was consumed with a retinue of broad fears that had nothing to do with facing the challenge of space, where fear might be merited.
In middle school I began collecting Star Trek books. Only books, and not quite a shelf: mostly the mass-market Ballantine paperbacks that appeared after the 1979 movie, though a few more detailed books for the hardcore hopeless. The local UHF station received occasional petitions from me, collected on notebook paper from fellow students at lunch, when reruns stopped. (The station manager always wrote back to extoll the virtues of the faithful and promised it would be back on, and it always was.) Saved lawnmowing money went to a brick of VHS back when blanks were $6 and I stayed up nights to record them off the air, watching along to pause out the commercials. Completed tapes had the record-safe tab punched out and were kept in a file cabinet drawer, safe from something.
Looking through one book one day, it changed. The book was The Star Trek Compendium, a professional guide to every episode without fawning or the strange religious tone I sometimes found. I remember a sense of great comfort and coolness, like when figuring out something in math and getting the right answer. I had a very clear thought: it’s just a TV show. It was revelatory. It was freedom.
High school was not a place for great likes or fanaticism of unapproved types, though who approved what and why was never clear and always changing. People became depressed for not making teams or other highly charged events I did not or refused to understand; I became depressed because new robots to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were being delayed or cancelled. How did people not know about this? But people didn’t know about the CIA killing priests in Central America either.
Challenger’s destruction was broken by the teacher across the hall, Mrs. Pearson. Matt and I are in Mrs. Powers’ vocabulary class, pumping ourselves up for the SAT. Pearson, a shy, strange and fretty woman with Nordic blue eyes and colorless blond hair, floated into the room. She stands at the very front of the room, clasps her hands in front of her chest like a nun, and says without introduction: the space shuttle has just exploded, and all the astronauts are dead. She holds the pose in the room’s pure silence, then turns and walks out. I remember looking at Matt, who didn’t understand either, and after a second class resuming as if nothing had happened.
Christa McAuliffe brooked no sympathy. The TV droned on and repeated that weird bulging Y as counselors were sent to console the nation’s elementary school children, and my memory is very clear that my classmates felt contempt. Counselors to schools, whatever. Need another seven astronauts. Haw haw.
What had happened to the smiling faces out of newsreels? Where was the triumph and national pride our country is always so desperate for? At the time, space was being re-imagined as a battlefield. It is a dull truth that a battlefield is the only place so many can think to find it.
The Space Shuttle lumbered on with its quiet successes, making headlines only for disasters and mistakes. Columbia was an unpleasant parallel to waking up two years before and turning on the TV to a stunned, blank wonder. Otherwise, it carried up space station parts and repaired the Hubble. The internet makes clear at least some people care–a lot of some. The TV seems ashamed and insulted people need not rely on it any more.
Now it is July 9. I am somewhere I would never have guessed at age 11, where I would have never imagined I would learn of and make an appointment to get up in time on my own personal communicator: the iPhone. The TV is as predicted in the long-ago Popular Science magazines: perfectly flat. It’s midmorning in Florida but very early in Hilo and many eras are ending, folding back on themselves through a television that looks out on what a handful of very rich people want us to see.
Everything is so much faster now, grown up. The hour of countdown I watch is interspersed with commercials for cars, drugs, “investments”. No one is anxious, only chatty. The clock halts where planned, continues when planned. The sparks fly, the water sprays as the flames come, and the weird duotone bird is gone in a minute. STS 135 is off the ground, delivering a final piece of a space station whose science merit is questionable. But it is done. Millions told by kingmakers they don’t and shouldn’t care have tuned in and turned out, lining Florida highways for miles. Nobody will ever see this again.
Afterward, the world is silken. I am awake but sleep deprived and walk to the little beach, the elementary school. People are surfing; no one is at school. Hilo, the big city, is far from action. I am not eleven and haven’t been for a long time. The Space Shuttle was a thing coexistent with the Ford Pinto, tinned-glass Thermos bottles, and computers with memory made of little magnetic donuts. It is from a time when wonder lay in the promise of the exotic things that could be made, and made real. It was a pickup truck not so much to space but to the future, where all its bright shining innards would be pieced out and solve our problems, because problems were solvable.
Late night comics and cab drivers and housewives didn’t understand why we were spending all that money on space, questioned the feckless and inept Government’s inability to do something as simple as keep newly invented heat shield technology glued on, wondered what business women had going up in space anyway. Now, these same people are working or laid off, watching bigger brighter TVs that show less, little screens circling all around to count the time running through their fingers more than money. I realize a conversion has happened over the Shuttle’s lifetime. We have adopted all its complexity but none of its sophistication. We have designed ourselves for a mishmash mission we never go on too.
Thirteen days later Atlantis lands. I don’t watch. I was busy, and had forgotten.