The space shuttle program was as much a part of my childhood as watching the Smurfs on a Saturday morning. For a while, it was equally as routine. On mornings when a shuttle was launching, my dad would wake me up early so we could see it together. We would sit in the living room of our apartment, in our robes and bleary-eyed, and watch another crew fly toward the heavens. Shuttle landings lacked the spectacle that appealed to my young sensibilities, but my dad watched them with equal intent. Some things, I didn’t appreciate until later.
Like millions of children across the country, I watched the ill-fated Challenger launch from the familiar setting of my school classroom. Our teacher was absent, but we were just as keen to see Christa McAuliffe and her fellow astronauts under the watchful eyes of our substitute. Within moments of what looked like an explosion, the school counselor was in our class of third- and fourth-graders asking if we had questions. I was too stunned to ask anything more than how?
The dangers of space flight had never occurred to me. The early morning launches were simultaneously awe-inspiring and matter of fact: this is who we are and what we do, we send explorers into space. “Manifest destiny” taken to the stars.
These days, I spend quite a bit of time talking with my son about the universe and sharing these bits of wonder from my childhood with him. At the age of three, he described his piggy bank as “gibbous”; we have run around the outside of our house to watch the International Space Station travel across the night sky; and his was the voice who told me that “they found more planets around another star” when the Trappist-1 system was announced. All this makes me think wide-eyed wonder might be a genetic trait.