The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a wooden space shuttle model. My father and my great uncle turned it on my uncle’s lathe. The boosters and the fuel tank attached with dowels (I imagined that they were explosive bolts) just like the real shuttle. As a child my missions weren’t constrained to Earth’s orbit. I would leave our small blue planet and travel the cosmos, using the gravitation pull of nearby planets (pine trees) to slingshot my way through the galaxy. In retrospect I think there is something amusing and iconic about a small boy launching his wooden shuttle into fantastic adventures through a snowy Maine forest.
The first national tragedy I experienced in life was the explosion of the Challenger. It was my first glimpse at the fallibility of human ingenuity. It was also my first experience with the incredible urge to rebuild and carry on in the face of failure. I remember being sad but mostly I remember being scared, scared that they would stop the Shuttle program. It was tragic that people had died but I always felt that they died doing what they loved and that if I could pick my death I might just choose to go during a express ride to the stars.
As I grew up my dreams of becoming an astronaut faded and changed but the shuttle always remained. I would watch a launch from time to time and remember my childhood dreams of riding that great white bird into orbit and watching as the Earth turned underneath me. Through wars and presidents, girlfriends and schools, jobs and vacations I could always count on the next shuttle launch…until today. As I watched the old girl tear through the sky one last time I wished that they could just keep going, just as I did when I was small. They could do a barrel roll as they passed the ISS at Mach 25 aim for the second star on the right and go straight on till morning.