Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Farewell to Discovery

It was February 1962. I was six years old and the world was still full of wonder and mystery. Armed with imagination and audacity, I believed there was nothing I couldn't do...once I got a little taller.

It was on that day, as I lay on the floor with a newspaper in front of me, that I decided, "I'm going to be an astronaut!"

How could I want to do anything else? There on the front page of the Toronto Star was the black and white photo of the world's newest hero: John Glenn. The caption said he zipped into his spacesuit. It's funny. It always stuck with me: his spacesuit had a zipper.

We all know that John Glenn's flight was such a success that many other brave and curious men followed in his orbit. In those days it was unimaginable that anyone but the Russians would want to send a woman into space. But, still I dreamed that one day, too, I'd watch the earth from my rocket, light on one side, dark on the other, turning, turning, turning...

As the years flew by, and I grew not much taller, I kept my dream, always looking forward to the day that I'd zip into my very own space suit and helmet. The helmet had a little scratchy patch in it, I learned, in case my nose got itchy. The food in my capsule wouldn't be very good, but I drank Tang and ate Space Food Sticks because I wanted to get used to astronaut food.

I watched in fascination as the Gemini and Apollo crews took flight and ventured to places no man had ever been. I turned away in despair when venturers lost their lives in a tragic launch pad fire. I leapt with joy after a seemingly endless silence when the Apollo 13 capsule successfully re-entered our atmosphere. I sat breathless, glued to the TV set as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

Those brave, marvelous travelers were my nobility. The scientists who put them into space in tiny metal capsules were my gods. Everyone who had anything to do with the space program was a hero to be worshipped for their genius, imagination and dedication. Sure, Paul McCartney was the cutest Beatle. But no common day heart throb could hold a candle to Alan Shepherd or Virgil Grissom.

When I was in high school, I decided I'd finally take the plunge and filled out an air force recruitment coupon from an American teen magazine. Several weeks later I received my response: they couldn't send applications outside the United States. I'd have to come to America to apply. And, to make matters worse, the experimental space course I took in high school convinced me that my skills in math weren't quite up to the job. It was difficult to calculate the Doppler effect to determine a red or blue shift!

Discouraged at the time, I set aside my dreams and turned my attention elsewhere. But I knew in my heart that of all the dreams I'd never achieve, this one would be the best. I wanted so much to feel the power of lift off, to float in my metal can, to see the stars up close. To be somewhere quiet and big and filled with hope for the future.

It was in the early 80s that my dream was resurrected, however briefly. An ad in Canadian newspapers read, "Astronaut Wanted." They'd made a deal with NASA. They wanted a Canadian to go up! How could I not apply?

While I had no qualifications and no hope whatsoever of being selected, I worked hard on my application. It was a five page poem that spoke about how much I wanted to leave the earth. And because they wanted someone who would be good with PR, I even included a T-shirt that screamed: Deborah Knight for Shuttle Flight!

As you'd expect, I received a rejection. But I was proud that no matter what job I was ever rejected for in the future, I could smile and say, "I've been rejected for better positions than this!"

A little while later I received a different letter, a very nice one from the head of Canada's Research Council. It said that of the 4000 applications they received, none expressed a greater desire to go into space than mine. Isn't that something? They felt the desire I'd kept bottled up from the time I was six years old.

I got my 15 minutes of fame and everyone got a laugh out of it. (When I realized I was never going to space, I took up the role of town fool.)

It was probably that same year that Alex and I were visiting Florida when an upcoming shuttle flight was announced. We were staying right across from the launch pad at the time, at a Howard Johnson's motel overlooking what I still call Cape Canaveral. Within minutes we were on the phone to my parents, my brothers, and the front desk, booking four rooms so our entire family could come back in a few weeks to see the lift off.

I can't quite describe what it's like. The sound of the engines is so deep and rumbling that you feel your innards shaking. There's simply nothing else like it. My Mom, my Step-Father, my brother John and his girlfriend Sam, my brother Alan and his wife Donna, and Alex and I stood on balconies overlooking the launch, eyes wide and faces lit up as we watched what looked like a slow, rumbling, labored ascent from the ground. It was the Challenger we watched. If it had been the catastrophic lift-off I'm sure I'd still be in therapy.

A few years later, Alex and I were on a business trip in California when we heard something interesting on the news. The shuttle landing in Florida might be cancelled due to weather; it might have to land at Edwards. It took all of three minutes for us to change our plans and start making our way to the air force base. It was several hours from where we were, and it wasn't even confirmed the shuttle would land there, but it was an opportunity we just couldn't miss.

When we pulled up in our rented car, we saw deserted bleachers near a runway. Were we in the right place? We didn't know. But from speakers along the bleachers we heard what we thought must be ground control. We sat for what seemed like hours...waiting to see what happened. The voice informed us the shuttle was over Madagascar. The decision had been made. It would be landing in California. It would be landing in front of our eyes!

Not too long afterward people started arriving at the stands. The announcement had come so late, they probably worked at the base. No one else would have had enough warning...except the two Canadian loons who thought they'd take the chance.

Together we listened...and listened...and watched the sky. Finally, someone shouted, "There it is!" and pointed up to to the west. Silent, awestruck we watched it. A dot coming straight away. And eventually the dot changed its angle. The shuttle was on its way.

A speechless crowd held its breath. The only sound to be heard was a tinny voice through the speakers -- updates from Ground Control -- as a silent metal bird raced along the runway before us, parachutes flying out to break its breakneck speed. And that was it. Men who had risked their lives to go where the slightest mistake would mean their demise, had quietly, neatly landed. They were home on earth. And we, observers of the brave, felt triumph that we had been there to greet them.

So many things have happened to the space program since the optimistic goals of 1962. We have explored worlds that have awed us since man first looked up to the sky. We have enjoyed the convenience of inventions that have kept our brave astronauts alive. We have marveled at discoveries that have brought us closer to the truth.

And today, as the Discovery dropped to earth, landing safely and silently on a runway I pause to think of the future. I wonder what does it hold? For us...for the space program...for our dreams?

In my lifetime, we have celebrated all the joys and mourned the necessary tragedies that come with a vision as grand as leaving our safe, tiny spaceship Earth.

We have developed technology beyond our wildest 1960s "space-age" visions. We have launched manless explorations that will no doubt bring us knowledge. We have compiled more intellectual resources than at any other time in our history.

But somehow I feel we've lost something. We've lost our sense of wonder. We've lost our enthusiasm for the future. We've lost the challenges we created, the obstacles we overcame and impossible dreams we shared.

Farewell Discovery. You served us beyond your time.


Robin said...

This entry touched my heart and memory. I was a 10 yr. old when John Glenn went into space and I have been enamoured of space travel since then. I have shared your sense of wonder at those who have gone into the great open space and thought I might volunteer to go to the moon when it became open to regular people. At the age of 60 I realize that probably won't happen but it is a dream of mine still.

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