Remembering dreams of space, heroes

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, August 30, 2012

When I was a child, I didn’t spend my time playing with dolls or worrying too much about boys. I was building model rockets.

But not just any model rockets – homemade NASA-style space shuttles.

I remember standing by my mother’s side at school, crying while we watched the Challenger break apart. When I was in fourth-grade, traveling to outer space was all I could think about. I wanted to be the first female shuttle commander. I watched Space Camp (a movie about children at Space Camp who accidentally get launched into space) so many times the VHS tape broke. I even looked into joining the Air Force, a precursor to becoming an astronaut. When I was in sixth-grade, my parents sent me to Space Camp in Huntsville.

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The dream of becoming an astronaut faded for me, as it does for many people, when the realization hit that it is a small, small club of brave people who are chosen for the honor.

But the dream of visiting outer space and the wonderment of what it must be like to view the Earth as a marble is still alive.

Last July, my then fiancé and I, along with a friend of ours, traveled to South Florida for the final shuttle launch. It was packed. People lined shuttle viewing areas with tents and had been camped out for days to see the final flight of the 30-year-old NASA program.

It had been years since the missions of Neil Armstrong and other space heroes, but for me, the last shuttle launch was just as important.

We found a nice family with a dock behind their home who let us have a prime viewing spot. We sat and waited, our view unobstructed. We listened to Mission Control and the astronauts go through their checklists.

There was all sorts of talk of weather and the shuttle not being able to launch, but I waited with the anticipation of a 10-year-old, my feet dangling near the water off the dock.

Then, the words of the shuttle launch director, “Good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. Good luck, god speed and have a little fun up there.”

That’s when I realized tears were streaming down my cheeks. Aaron and I exchanged a smile and laugh, he had just wiped tears from his eyes.

The ground rumbled. Smoke came from the bottom of the shuttle. Then it went up, up, up until Atlantis was no longer visible from the ground.

If watching a spacecraft take off is that powerful, I can only imagine what it would be like to sit in one.

Not knowing whether you’d come home. Not knowing what you’d see.

The people who strap themselves in for the adventure are heroes.

That’s why it pained me more than a little to hear of Neil Armstrong’s death last Saturday.

An icon, a hero, an engineer, a father, a teacher, a test pilot, a medal winner – the first man to step foot on the moon.

His family has scheduled a private service today, and although we can’t show our sympathy in a personal way, we can through an act requested by the President of the United States and Alabama’s governor.

Flags will be flown at half-staff today in memory of the hero and prayers lifted up in honor of the man synonymous with childhood dreams of space.