Space, Man

We seem but to linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish out of memory ere we learn the language. — Henry David Thoreau

Invariably, as my dear wife and I head out the door of our house for dinner, to go grocery shopping or the 101 other mundane tasks we do, she must stop and begin delving into her arcane trove of make-up accessories to do the final touch-up on the image she presents to the world.

She’s got some really weird brushes, powders and minute vials in the plastic box she keeps on the shelf of the mirrored closet right near the door.

As part of this little ritual, after what seems an awful long time, I begin to intone slowly and clearly, "Houston, all systems are go. We are now prepared to initiate lift-off procedures. Houston… " I love to say "Houston" with all the arch technocratic NASA-induced drama I can muster.

She looks across at me as she brushes some eye-of-newt, oil of olay concoction on herself with a long-suffering, if not belligerent, glance.

It struck me recently while engaged in this highly witty enterprise of mine that this is one of the last vestiges of a childhood dream. I feel lucky to recall it before it vanishes out of memory.

When I was nine or 10, I was crazy about space and rockets and astronauts. I remember a book I carried with me everywhere (I can still see clearly in my mind one of its rocket drawings) about The Story of Space Flight.

This was about 1961. We still lived in Washington State, before moving to the wilds of northern British Columbia. The Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, shocking the world. Yuri Gagarin was the first human being in space in 1961, followed shortly by American Alan Shephard the same year. ("Ahh, roger. Launch is a go." That's Shephard. I just love saying that stuff with kind of a twang as I turn the car ignition on.)  Everywhere was talk of outer space and national prestige.

I really wanted to be an astronaut. This was just after really wanting to be a cowboy and just before really wanting to be a writer, and a scientist, and a chess master.

It was just about the time when I turned away from reading all the many Oz books. (Did you know L. Frank Baum wrote 14 of them, and others wrote at least 26 more? The Snohomish Public Library in Washington had all of them, and my parents had to help me carry the 10 or so I took each time to the car. It is deeply nostalgic to see the book covers again at http://www.eskimo.com/~tiktok/faq02.html.)

I entered the worlds of science fiction. Everything from James Blish’s Cities in Space series to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Foundation series to Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. Once lost in a city in space, my mother would call me long, often and finally hard before I came to attention.

Parents, you may not appreciate this, but be aware that if your child becomes deeply enamored of science fiction, it is terribly subversive. It respects no conventions, accepts no authorities. It imagines freely. Wonderful stuff (in the midst of some awful and trite material, I have to admit).

Becoming an astronaut in the real world lost its lustre before long. But another trace of those bygone days that pops up is the daily habit of taking a look at APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day, http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html). It often helps to place things in their proper perspective: the vast mystery of the universe vs. the little mystery of me.  And there's occasionally some good science fiction material there too…

And you can be a virtual astronaut, if you insist, through a free program called Noctis, a space simulation where in your own personal Stardrifter you may roam a huge galaxy, taking photos of strange planets and environments and submit them to a central archive. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noctis and http://anywherebb.com/noctis.html.)

Oh, time to go, finally…  In the car I call out one last time, after of course counting backward from ten:  "Ahh… roger that, Houston.  We have lift-off." And we roll down our driveway, my wife laughing at me, into the world.

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4 Comments on “Space, Man”

  1. bloglily Says:

    The final frontier! Looking back, our collective interest in space travel, whether it was through the astronauts or via science fiction, seems so optimistic — exactly the stuff of childhood. But even as an adult, I love looking at the stars, and wondering about other worlds and other possibilities. Thanks for this lovely post. BL

  2. fencer Says:

    I think we suffer in the cities not being able readily to see the stars and the night sky. Over the hundreds of thousands of years of mostly pre-urban history, being able to see the night sky and experience the awe of it may have helped humankind to keep its feet on the ground… so to speak.

    Thanks!

  3. qazse Says:

    What a wonderfully entertaining writer you are, taking us on a humorous, insightful, nostalgic, and edifying, journey from the last minute cosmetic ritual, to your past, to the library, to the stars, to dreams and imaginings, cold war history, noted S/F writers, present day doorways to wonder, and then back to present life in the your driveway (did I miss anything?). And it was all wrapped in your NASA banter. I loved it.

    re bloglily’s post and your response, I have two comments:

    First, a plug for Vermont. They outlawed billboards many years ago and most ski resorts are unlighted. Here in Pennsylvania we are beginning to see many billboards which are electronically illuminated – a diabolical turn taking us closer to earth as motherboard.

    Secondly, a plug for the eastern North Cascades where I became reacquainted with the nighttime sky while camping at Hart’s Pass while on vacation.

  4. fencer Says:

    Thanks, qazse, for your kind appreciation. I’m kind of liking that post more now!

    Earth as motherboard… hey that’s good!

    Camping under a clear night sky should be a required course in high school, I think…


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