Launching History

Thom Bauer/Reuters

Tears streamed down my face as I watched SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket take off this afternoon from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

I am steeped in emotion.  

Thankful that all went as planned, I praise God and scientists for the two men safely in orbit. My son and daughter and I are trading joyful texts, each of us glued to the coverage in our respective cities.  

I embrace a glimmer of pride for the agencies that have persevered in space travel, despite the retraction of financial support on a national level. I feel immense relief, not only for the astronauts and their families, but for my daughter’s sister-in-law, a member of Crew Dragon, whose entire career has been devoted to the spacecraft’s success. 

As a child, I saw every televised, manned launch in the mid- to late 60s, curled up on a couch next to my mother and brother. Sometimes she woke us from a sound sleep in the dark of night, carrying us into the living room for each momentous occasion. 

I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of space travel when I was an adolescent. But as the years rolled by, I gained an appreciation, fascination and deep respect for the U.S. space program. 

Saturday, after nine years of being grounded, our country soared again. Together with NASA, SpaceX launched astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on their journey to the International Space Station. The mission marks the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 that humans will fly to the space station from U.S. soil. The mission’s first launch attempt on Wednesday, May 27 was scrubbed due to weather conditions.  

But Saturday was perfect. 

As the two men barrel toward their ultimate destination, I remember my mother’s face, lit up with excitement as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969. I hear my brother’s rapid-fire questions bombarding her with the confidence that she had all the answers. It was the day before her 42nd birthday, and we pretended it was part of our planned celebration. Later, I cross-stitched a replica of the landing for her, a gift she treasured until her death.  

Ironically, today’s launch occurred at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 39A, called Cape Kennedy in the 60s, the site from which Apollo 11 launched to the moon. It also hosted 82 of the 135 space shuttle launches, including the first and final ones. 

Today’s mission also brought home memories to my husband. At 19, he was gifted enough to work with astronauts at NASA on several Apollo flights. His claim to fame still is the design of the antennae on the backpacks worn by the astronauts on the moon. He watched today’s crystal-clear video of the rocket and closeups of the astronauts, marveling at the difference in the grainy black-and-white footage of early space flights. 

Watching today’s footage and considering the human cargo, I thought also of my daughter, who, at 10, thought she would be an astronaut. When I was offered an opportunity to take her to the NASA space center outside of Houston for a personalized visit, I jumped at the chance. There she met my friend, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. 

Bonnie is a veteran of five space flights, having logged more than 50 days in space. She served as a mission specialist on a Challenger mission in 1985, and on a Columbia shuttle in 1990. She was the Payload Commander in 1992, 1995 and 1998.  

Bonnie had Megan enthralled within minutes of meeting. One of her most memorable contributions to my daughter’s space education was when she gave her a private tour of a Shuttle mockup. She let Megan see for herself that astronauts could, in fact, use a toilet in space.  

But I watched my child’s space dream evaporate the moment Bonnie told her that books were not allowed in space. They would take up valuable space, she told Megan, and besides, astronauts did not have time to read! Megan’s books were carried with her like an extra appendage and, at that time, there were no audio books. Just like that, the idea of becoming an astronaut was obliterated. 

Still, my family’s love affair with all things space has continued over the years, but from afar. Today’s success rekindled the sweetness of hope in the future, in a time when life seems especially challenging. 

Not only has private enterprise attained what so many said was impossible, but it has gone further in a quest to reclaim resources. Shortly after the astronauts made it to orbit, SpaceX celebrated its second achievement of the day – landing the Falcon 9 booster’s first stage on the SpaceX drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, waiting patiently in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Today’s historic launch was exhilarating. I am overwhelmed to have witnessed it. I pray for a successful completion of the mission, and many more to come. 

I just wish my mom and brother had been alive, curled up on the couch with me, to witness it. 

Thom Bauer/Reuters