The dream of the ’90s is alive, not only in Portland, but here in this blog post. My older brothers and I pose with my dad in front of a Saturn V rocket engine at Kennedy Space Center in 1992.
Stars and Rockets
My fascination with space exploration started in pre-school. My father had always worked in aviation so he was able to indoctrinate me, the most impressionable kid of the bunch, of course. Despite filling my rather awesome blue carrying case with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, the few airplanes and space shuttles I owned took center stage in my fantasy world of die-cast metal vehicles. Mysteriously, none of them ever took flight when propelled off the top bunk bed.
In elementary school, my favorite books were about planets, rockets and the earth. I discovered who Sally Ride was in a volume of Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia. Through this book, I learned about the Gemini and Mercury projects, the Apollo 11 lunar landing and the Challenger disaster. What struck me most was
a soccer ball to the head courtesy of my brother learning that everybody owns the moon. When I read that, I felt like Snoopy was just trying to please me. How can everybody own the moon? I would later learn (an hour ago) that due to a 1967 UN treaty, no single nation can claim ownership of the moon. Therefore, in a people-pleasing kind of way, everybody owns the moon. We’re just not supposed to blow it up or allocate a few square miles to falafel shops in Mare Tranquilitatis. Lame rule, but necessary nonetheless.
As I got older, I started following space shuttle missions. If they didn’t interfere with school, I would try to catch a launch on NASA TV. I had watched tv shows that explained what went wrong with the STS-51-L mission, more commonly known as the 1986 Challenger accident. I was born a few months after that terrible accident so I had never witnessed a mishap in manned spaceflight.
After I arrived home from school on February 1st, 2003, I turned on the tv to catch TRL with Carson Daly. I was shocked by the horrifying message being broadcasted on one of the local stations:
“SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA DISINTEGRATES OVER TEXAS.”
I lost my balance and fell backward onto the sofa. Fresh from losing my brother Francisco in a tragic accident only seven months earlier, It shattered my heart that seven families were not going to welcome home their loved ones. I made sure to never forget them.
(bottom row from left) Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; Ilan Ramon, payload specialist; (top row from left) David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander.
My First Launch
Despite having 1,200 miles of coastline, many Floridians never visit the beach. I have friends who have never visited Disney World and wouldn’t be able to navigate Miami if their lives depended on it. (Don’t get me started on Hialeah.) Similarly, nobody I knew ever drove three hours to Cape Canaveral to witness a space shuttle launch. Their reasons were justified; quite often, a launch would get postponed due to a fuel leak, bad weather or a squirrel lodged in one of the engines. After the schedules for the final launches were posted online, I made it a priority to catch at least one of them from Space View Park, the closest point the general public could get, which is a teasing 15 miles from the launch pad. I ended up seeing the final nighttime launch of Discovery on the STS-131 mission. I bugged my friend Trevor to go with me and drive up from Fort Lauderdale to Titusville. We arrived at 2:00 a.m. to claim a spot, which apparently was too late. Launch was scheduled for 6:21 a.m. and people were catching on that the shuttle era was coming to a close. Highway US1 was packed with onlookers, but that didn’t dismay us. We found a spot, waited patiently and when those solid rocket boosters ignited, it was all worth it. It looked like the sun was rising. I could even feel the heat from the massive flames, not to mention the powerful sound waves that arrived 15 seconds later.
In a few seconds, it was all over, but I was content. I had just witnessed seven people get launched into space aboard 6.7 million pounds of thrust. The entire was experience was unforgettable, but it paled in comparison to the one I had on July 8th, 2011, when NASA selected me to witness the final launch of the space shuttle program - from the Countdown Clock.
To be continued…