Major Tom & The Shuttle Program

So this morning marks the last launch of the NASA Space Shuttle and the event has been on my mind all week.

My first memories of the space shuttle date back to a family vacation we took to Florida in 1983 or 1984. I can remember getting a die cast metal shuttle toy and hearing the news about Sally Ride. I rode Space Mountain at Disney World, learned about Space Camp and decided, then and there, I wanted to be an Astronaut.

What happened back in reality was the horrible Challenger Disaster a few years later. I can still remember my Dad watching a newscast with the terrible footage of the shuttle disintegrating that led in to the Superbowl Shuffle video of the Chicago Bears. The images are very linked in my memory, but I would have been only 9 years old then and, living in the part of Michigan where I grew up, that Superbowl victory (and music video) were everywhere at the time. Still, pretty creepy cross-cut.

Now I was a deeply nerdy little kid, but I think most boys that age (or Men of my generation now) were in to Star Wars. Star Wars had it all (for reference, see also: the entire internet) but the Space Shuttle was unique. Here was a reusable, manned space vehicle where we could conduct experiments, see the world spin, float weightless and talk to Joan Lunden on Good Morning America.

This was the 80’s, after all, and my Mom was quite devoted to Joan Lunden and Phil Donahue, before the former left and they turned the show into “GMA” and the latter begat Oprah. But that’s a different post.

Despite the horror of Challenger, I saw the movie Space Camp later that year and was actually excited that we’d be moving from Michigan to Tennessee in 1987 because I’d be closer to Huntsville, Alabama and actual space camp.

As a 6th grade student I got to go to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and was wowed by the models of rockets, replicas of the bay and cockpit of the shuttle and, of course, the freeze-dried ice cream.

I never actually took my scientific studies seriously enough to go down the path to becoming an astronaut of working for NASA myself. Once I got a telescope and saw the heavens (and, let’s be honest, after watching Aliens) I started writing stories and poetry and I went down the path of science fiction instead of science fact. I was much more an Explorers kid than Space Camp.

I actually have another memory from probably the 7th grade – by this time we lived in suburban Atlanta – of all my classmates gathered in a communal area to watch a shuttle launch in the morning. Maybe it was STS-26 or STS-27? Likely the former, as that would have been the first post-Challenger launch. I guess the school thought assembling all of us to watch either inoculated the launch from any problems or it made good and sure we had a front-row seat for something else terrible to happen.

Either way, I remember the cheers as the shuttle launched and the tears in the eyes of my Science teacher. This was the same woman who made sure we all went to see Gorillas in the Mist (with a note from our parents, since it was PG-13) later that same year. Great educator. She played guitar and had a song about the bones of the body and one about muscles. I only wish I could remember her name (but that’s the price you pay for two concussions in the 7th grade. Again: separate story).

And that’s about the end of my infatuation with the shuttle. After that, I was basically interested in music (band nerd), girls and science fiction.

I had a moment yesterday where I asked about Major Tom – both Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Peter Schilling’s “Coming Home” – and the consensus seems to be that folks like the German song better than the English song. I don’t agree with that musical assessment, but I think the arc of Major Tom is apropos. Bowie was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the failed British space program and Schilling was just returning that lost astronaut home safely.

Today is the last launch but it won’t be the last time I look to the heavens. It won’t be the last time I dream of floating weightless and looking back at earth below me. I may not be an astronaut and I’ll likely never get to walk in space, but I’m still mesmerized, inspired and awed nonetheless.

If you don’t have a TV handy, follow the livestream here or the Twitter chatter.


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