Even before I gave birth to a child who would become obsessed with space flight and exploration, drawing his younger brother toward the same passion with his enthusiasm, the Shuttle program has been a large part of my life. I grew up thirty miles from Cape Canaveral and if we weren't at the coast, parked in our station wagon or later in our VW van watching launches up close, we were in our backyard or in my school's parking lot, both of which were a direct shot down Highway 50 from Kennedy Space Center. The only time I remember watching a launch on t.v. before moving away from Central Florida was the day of the Challenger disaster. I was home sick from school that day so was watching from inside while my parents watched from the upstairs, east-facing window of the home we were building, my sister watching from the school parking lot with her classmates. I have always been grateful that I wasn't watching it in the sky that day, it was traumatic enough for a 13 yr. old to comprehend. I don't think any of us ever worried until that point that anything could ever go wrong. Watching Shuttle launches was like watching a fireworks display.
I'll never forget the day I was playing in my East Orlando backyard and looked up when a low flying plane came over the tree tops. It was huge and very, very low, like I could touch the underbelly of the colossal aircraft. We had planes cross in a flight pattern over our house very high up in the sky, but never like this. While I stood with my jaw hanging open, I realized that on top of the plane was the Space Shuttle riding piggy-back from its landing place in California, home to Kennedy Space Center where it would be readied for another flight. I watched until it was out of view and ran back up the property to tell my family what I had witnessed. I had really wanted to see a Shuttle up close, but even at the Kennedy Space Center visitor center you couldn't get near one. My dad did a little mental calculation and figured that if it was going to land at the Cape which was only a 35 minute drive, it had to be so low to already be preparing to land.
As my first-born son grew it was obvious that he had a passion for science. Even at age two he said he wanted to be doctor and at three would grill his pediatricians on medical posters and charts that hung on the walls of the examining rooms, wanting to know what everything was and what it did. Very quickly his interests switched to space flight, planets, anything to do with astronomy. By age nine he was determined to be the first man on Mars. I used to tease him and ask him why, when he knew how hard it was going to be for me when he grew up and moved away, did he have to go the absolute furthest from me that he could? Well, with the future space program that had been set in place to follow the Shuttle Program it was possible that he could very well make his dream come true if all the conditions were right and he planned his life accordingly. We knew he had the drive to reach his goal, but as a mother who wants her children to have anything they want, I worried about the enormity of that dream. When the current administration took office and scratched the space program from the drawing board we were worried that he didn't have a back-up plan. "Don't worry," he tells me all the time, "I have a plan B, C, D, and E." Smart boy. I was such a silly child at his age with no goals for my future in mind whatsoever, so this boy's mature attitude just blows me away.
Well, he really wanted to go to Space Camp. He needed to go before he turned twelve because though there were other programs, the basic Space Camp was for kids under that age. We didn't see how he could go it was so expensive and two states away. I couldn't send my son at age 10 that far. Just couldn't do it. My husband surprised the boys with a sensible alternative-- a weekend, parent accompanied Space Camp program for himself and both boys. So nice to be so young and have your biggest dream come true! They all got so much out of it and had the most amazing time. Last summer they took me for the day to show me all they did and guess what I found at Space Camp? A full-sized, fully functioning Space Shuttle on display. Too cool!
Another of my boys' dreams was to see an actual Shuttle Launch. They knew that I had grown up watching them and we felt that it was important for an aspiring astronaut to experience it for himself. This time I was in on the secret when my husband came home with a package that had come in the mail. Inside were tickets to Kennedy Space Center for the day of a launch and special parking passes. He had already taken time off work for those days. Could I ask for a better father to my children?! We had the best time! Another bonus was that I was able to see my grandmother on her last Mother's Day. It was such a special time for our little family and the launch was amazing viewed from Space Center property.
Today's launch marked the end of the Shuttle Program that was almost as old as I am. I am proud to say that I watched the first Shuttle launch with my naked eye and though the last I viewed miles and miles away through my t.v. screen, it was just as poignant. I had no idea it would be so moving until the commander gave a speech from the cockpit and my little guy said, "It's like they're taking Disney away and no one can ever go again". That's when I lost it. I can't help thinking how different our country is from when the Shuttle first launched. It's like that spirit of adventure and patriotism has come to an end. They say we are opening a "new chapter", but with no plans for a space program it seems to me as if the book has just closed. For my son and other future pioneers I am hoping that the sky is not the limit.