Memories of Atlantis

As the final space shuttle launch for the foreseeable future goes up today, and the melancholy of that finality tinges the excitement of a spaceship leaving the atmosphere, I thought: wow, I never posted about the launch last year. I livetweeted, but never posted. Bad internet kitten.

So. Last year, as part of the Nebula Awards, a bunch of science fiction and fantasy writers got to see the launch of STS-132, also shuttle Atlantis, on a very sunny Florida day in May.

Now, the only reason I actually attended the Nebula ceremony was to see the launch. I had no hope of winning, see. (History makes lulz of us all.) But it was userinfojustbeast ‘s childhood dream to see a shuttle launch, and I consider it part of my duty in this world to make userinfojustbeast ‘s childhood dreams come true. Also, I was one of those dorky kids who watched Spacecamp like 900 times and worshipped Christa McAuliffe and was gonna be a for-real astronaut when she grew up, not like how little kids want to be an astronaut, but how big little kids want to–with some actual plans, but ultimately shitty follow-through. I went to Florida for that little girl, really.

As an odd aside, when I told my mother that I was going to see the space shuttle launch she said: "Oh! Did I ever mention that I was there to see the moon landing guys go up in ’69? We were living in Florida back then, and the ground shook like an earthquake." OH MY GOD NO YOU NEVER MENTIONED THAT HOLY CRAP. The things our parents forget to tell us! I’ll bet when she saw that ship go up she promised herself she’d tell her kids. But then so many other stories crowd in and before you know it your daughter is thirty and going to see a launch of her own. Much like I meant to post this, last year, and so many things got in the way, other stories, other triumphs and failures crowding in, asking their due.

That hot May day last year, we bused out to the site, and sat in the bleachers in the blistering sun, and watched the giant red numbers count down (then count up a little, then down again). We talked about writing, and about space shuttles, and we watched the big, shining ship out there on the pad.

I expected it to be a pretty cool thing to see, but I was unprepared for just how extraordinary it was–the sound of it roaring and the ground shaking, yes, like an earthquake, and the clouds of pale exhaust pluming out. But what I felt wasn’t really any of that, it was the collective desire of everyone in those stands, holding hands instinctively, just willing it to go up and up and up, to carry all our hopes with it (and yes, a simple research mission, but it didn’t matter what they were going up for, just that a handful of humans were flying, flying into the heavens, further than any of us would ever go, better and faster and brighter, the hope that fuels all those novels and all those kids clutching toy shuttles), a group of earthbound advanced primates, our want and wonder so focused and sharp, willing everything to be perfect, for nothing to hurt, for the world to be as it should be, as it sometimes is in our books–us, our little folk, reaching further than our grasp, and for nothing bad to happen on the way there.

Because as it rose higher and higher I realized that the last time I had seen a launch was on a television screen in my first grade classroom in 1986. I watched the Challenger and my hero Christa explode into pieces that morning, and cried only later, when I understood what had happened. Then I just watched in total shock and disbelief. And it was the same image, the shuttle rising into a perfect blue sky. Until that moment I had no idea how much my heart had held onto that image of the Challenger, the instant before it was obliterated. And watching the Atlantis, my whole being just held its breath, thinking: please don’t explode, please make it, please don’t burst into flame and fall out of the sky.

And it didn’t. And only later did the clouds of we’re not going up anymore, for all these sensible and not sensible reasons roll in. In that moment, all I felt was hope and joy. Unalloyed, unironic, full of ascending fire. And I cried again, just so full of wonder and optimism, as the image of the Challenger inside me was replaced and redeemed by a new one: the Atlantis, dwindling away from us, looking like nothing so much as a perfect, brilliant star.

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