Molly Mounds: What does that mean?
Rockhound: I don’t know…
In early August, my dad gave me a call. He told me that a family friend has passed away suddenly after a brief battle with cancer.
Obviously, this struck a chord with both of us, so when he rang a few days later asking if he could take me to Space Camp, I honestly think I was more grateful then surprised.
We had been talking about going to Space Camp for years. It was my dad who got me interested in science fiction. As a boy, I remember him reading me the original Pierre Boulle novel of Planet of the Apes, watching reruns of the original Star Trek, even buying me the Jack Kirby-illustrated comic of 2001: A Space Odyssey (try explaining THAT ending to an eight year-old…)We watched Apollo go up and down, followed by the Shuttle. He called me from Florida a few years back and held his cel phone up to the sky so I could hear the roar of the shuttles engines as it took off into the night.
Like the elliptical orbit of all fathers and sons we have been closer, and at some times farther. We’ve had agreements, and disagreements. Moments when we wanted to strangle or hug one another (sometimes simultaneously), but through it all, we’ve always had one thing in common: an innate sense of curiosity and wonder about the stuff that makes our universe tick.
Dad and I are also great procrastinators. He gets tunnel-vision busy and I get tunnel-vision busy, so oftentimes the Space Camp discussion quickly circled in and out of our respective worlds and then, quickly forgotten. Flash-forward to a few weeks ago, Dad had recently retired and I finally had some air in my schedule. Both my wife and step mom, unbeknownst to one another had come to the sharp conclusion that now was the time! So, with the thumbs up from our respective better halves, pop and I found ourselves bound for Huntsville, Alabama donning blue flight suits, flipping toggle switches against NASA-coded checklists and saying things like “Roger, Houston” our amused astonishment. It was a blast.
There were thirty adults split into two teams of fifteen the Kennedy Team and the Marshall Team. I was on ‘Marshall’, and yes, it took us all of about twenty seconds for us to start shouting “We are Marshall”. The groups were divided into two additional teams – pilot track and mission specialist track. Dad and I were on the mission specialist track. Of course, everybody wanted to be The Commander of the shuttle – so believe me, my inner director REALLY wanted to take the reigns of the Enterprise (the name of our mock space shuttle), but as the week taught me, the world needs Mission Specialists as much as it needs Commanders.
My fellow space campers came from everywhere. Iowa, California, Long Island, England, New Zealand, Argentina and even Cleveland. We wrote software, pushed pencils, sold parts, and pressed pants. And in that, short, week, we really became a team. I had never met or worked with as smart or as dynamic a group of people. And dad and I were honored to be in their acquaintance. I can honestly say that we learned as much from each other than we did our instructors – and the members of the Marshall Team will always have a special place in my heart.
It means 'From fun, knowledge'. Don't say anything, but I'm pretty proud of him!
And we all had one thing in common: We all wanted to walk in the footsteps of astronauts.
For most, it was the culmination of a childhood dream. For others it was a nagging curiosity that reached some sort of pinnacle. For me, I think it was the former. As I sat in a white cotton mock space suit, in a white plastic mock bubble helmet, hanging off of a mock robotic arm controlled by a few toggle switches by my right hand, I ruminated on how opaque that boundary between fantasy and reality can sometimes be. And then, sometimes, not.
It was all make-believe. A construct. I was on a plywood representation of a piece of metal hurtling 17,000 miles an hour 200 miles over my head. I wasn’t talking to Houston, I was talking to Jen, a fellow space camper in the next room. My ‘space walk’ partner hung in a spiderweb of steel cables off a track in the ceiling to replicate zero g. The pretend satellite we had to ‘repair’ was battered wood, covered in NASA-tinted gold foil. There was a painted blob of blue and white to the right of me, and to the left, a black curtain with beads of glass sewed in. I could hear bits of conversation and activity in the hangar-like garage that housed the matrix of simulators around me.
I could feel sweat bead above my lip. I’m warm. The ice packs pressing against my ribs strain to keep my core temperature in-line with some pre-determined tolerance that someone gaged as acceptable comfort. The breath of fellow mission specialist grates against her microphone as she slides across the cargo bay. My field of view is limited by my helmet, I’m strapped in, I can only turn so far to reach the satellite, I can feel the air slamming against my plastic visor and coming back at me in an invisible wave, bits of mission chatter play out in the background of my fake mission control like some kind of tense music…
And I’m there….
I squint and just see the stars in front of me. My world is everything that I’ve brought into my helmet and that’s it.
The chatter, gravity and for a second, reality, fades away and I’m floating in the cargo bay of the space shuttle repairing a satellite. I know it’s as close as I’m probably going to get and it’s a moment that I waited my whole life for.