Growing Up with the Space Shuttle

Launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, Mission STS-123

Image via Wikipedia

I was a year old when the first shuttle was launched. In those early years, every launch seemed to matter (though of course I can’t claim to remember the very first); everyone took time to watch. For the adults, the shuttles were new; for me, they were no newer than anything else, so I figured that the interest must be due to something inherently fascinating about them. I internalized that, went through my phase of wanting to be an astronaut (really, I just wanted to go to space and write a poem while looking out the window), and as I got older found it deeply confusing that people no longer paused to watch the launches in the same way.

Of course, before that happened, there was the Challenger disaster. I’m in that age group for which you expect that shuttle’s destruction to be our earliest experience of unexpected tragedy—and, for me, it was. While most people my age talk about the shock of seeing it explode on TV, however, something else remains more vivid for me. My Sparks group (what Camp Fire was then calling its kindergarten clubs) had signed a Peace Pledge, promising to work for world peace, which the Challenger was taking into space. I wondered, then, what that meant for the promises: did they still count when they had been destroyed? Remember, I was six.

That these words and their connection to the disaster have always had more pull on me than the images may have been an early indication that I would eventually choose to focus more on writing than on photography (witness my hundreds of unprocessed photographs stretching back to February 2010).

At any rate, by the time I was a teenager, I only caught some of the shuttle launches. Occasionally, thanks to living on the West Coast, I’d be able to see one lift off before I left for school. Once, when my high school swim team had practice before class, we convinced our coach (who had previously been a stunt double for John Wayne) to let us run outside to see the space shuttle, then in orbit, go by. Forty girls in layered swimsuits—a few of us had bothered with towels—poured out of the concrete building onto the concrete walkway, laughing and pointing at any light that moved in the mostly dark sky above. I think we even saw the shuttle.

By 2003, when the Columbia broke apart on reentry, I no longer kept track of the launches. I read about the incident online and realized that I hadn’t even known that a shuttle was landing that day. I promised myself that I would follow the shuttle program, and really any new developments in space travel, more closely. For a while I did, and then I didn’t. Other interests had taken over. You can never be the same person you once were, and I didn’t want the part of me that loved the space shuttles back badly enough.

And now the last shuttle is on its last mission. It would be too convenient if I, too, were leaving behind some major aspect of my life, but I’m only 2/3 of the way through my doctoral thesis. Then again, I guess there are always parts of our lives we can let go of: desires that can never be fulfilled, interests that have become mere habit.

Sometimes you’ve done everything but realize you’ve let go, and then something in the world changes and reminds you that nothing ever stays the same and that includes you.


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