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I am a Space Kid: Reflections on the Last Space Shuttle Mission

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Space ShuttleNothing in pop culture defines a kid born in the winter months of 1975 like the space shuttle program. Just as my 5 year old mind was opening to the possibilities of life on earth, the first shuttle rocketed out of sight giving us a magnificent look at earth from above. Millions of little minds, mine included, were opened wide with dreams that exceeded the bounds of the atmosphere. While generations before had imagined what it would feel like to float in the skies, we pondered what it would feel like to know that the skies were underneath our feet.

Unlike all of my friends who simply had to imagine, I was so much closer to the reality we desired. I had a uncle who worked for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was my connection to my loftiest dreams. Not only could my mind soar with those astronauts in celestial glory, but I had a terrestrial contact who seem like he might well be able to help me turn my dreams into reality. A real rocket scientist made my fantasies seem so achievable some days.

Unlike most of those who dreamed the dream, I never became an astronaut. I never even made it to space camp. But still to this day, every time I drive by the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson Kansas, that five year old kid nearly jumps out of the car and runs for the door. Oh, my much larger frame would not likely fit into any of the training apparatus anymore, but you better believe I would give it a try. What better place could a space kid get stuck?

Of course, one day everything was altered. Challenger rocked the skies and my dreams. While it seems crass now, I suppose I was more upset that my fantasy had been so abruptly interrupted by reality than I was that Christa McAuliffe would not return home to her students or family. For 32 long months, I wondered if it was all just a lost memory. Perhaps my greatest hopes were mere fictions. Perhaps the atmosphere would remain impenetrable.

But the shuttles returned and so did the aspirations. I continued to put down Tang as if it were part of my own training regimen. Velcro was more than a way to close my shoes or Trapper Keeper. If someone would have allowed it, I would have lived on Astronaut food tasteless as it was.

Each subsequent shuttle launch, though looking remarkably similar to the last, captured my full attention. It was as if I had never seen it before.

Today, I watched again. And I was no less focused or excited. I held my breath as all who saw Challenger are prone to do. I trembled a little when the countdown was stopped at 31 seconds to launch. Each coded word from NASA technicians made me hope that nothing was wrong. My dreams could not handle another tragedy.

Today I watched for the last time. Yes, the last shuttle mission. I was no less amazed. But that five year old space kid felt a frown fall upon his face. He would never feel the g-force of the launch himself. He would never even be able to experience the rumble of the launch live. He wouldn’t even be able to tune in with youthful wonder to watch on TV. That which defined his childhood was all of a sudden a museum exhibit and no more.

He wondered what this meant for his other dreams. Would they pass away into time as well? And what was it that would capture his children like the shuttle had done to him. What in our day could make people dream so big?

I am a space kid.

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