I don’t remember the first night I stared up at the stars, but my brother does; it’s the first thing he remembers, in fact. He must have been about three or so, my mom was away in the Navy, and we were staying with our grandma in Logan Square. My brother, really sad one night, missing Mom, knelt at our bedroom window—or stood, I guess, since he was still so small—and having seen in some cartoon how wishing on the brightest star in the night sky made dreams come true, he spotted the brightest star he could see, through all the trees and light pollution of the city, and offered up his deepest wish, tears soaking his doughy cheeks.
“Star light… star bright… First star I see tonight… I wish I may… I wish I might… have this wish I wish tonight.”
Suddenly—so he says—the star grew brighter, closer, like headlights coming head on. This must be what happens, he thought. This must mean it’s working. The star dropped down right outside the second-floor window, bathing the whole room in light, blinding him. My brother was rattled, of course, but not afraid. He just stood there telling the star how much he missed Mom and how much he wanted her to come back home from Gitmo, from Cuba—though, at the time, he had no clue where she was, or what the Navy meant.
Once he told the star the deal, it pulled away from the window and receded back into the night sky, till it was gone. It’s a beautiful if freaky story, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing the whole business as merely some heartbroken little boy’s imagination running wild. Only, a short while later, my grandma’s house mysteriously caught fire while my brother and I were at the park with the girl next door. The fire department said it was arson, but they never found who lit the thing. And when word got to my mom in Cuba about what happened, she went AWOL, and rushed home.
I didn’t really see the stars till we moved to the suburbs. We moved in with my aunt and two cousins—Mom had left Dad for dead—and when my cousin Junior got a yellow telescope, that was it: I was spaced out.
First we trained the telescope on the moon, obviously, then Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. We tried making out the rings of Saturn, which stretch over 50,000 miles into space—more than twice the circumference of Earth—but with the rinky-dink yellow telescope, we couldn’t see squat. Still, it was exciting, being amateur astronomers. We were looking up, watching, when Comet Hale-Bopp swung by in 1997, but I don’t remember seeing anything that bright in the sky. Maybe we never caught a clear enough night, with an unobstructed view, or maybe I just don’t remember—I don’t know which is more depressing.
Suffice it to say that, in the mid-nineties, NASA and astronauts were to me what the military and G.I. Joe were to other kids. I probably fantasized about going into space, orbiting Earth at five miles per second, maybe actually exiting the Space Shuttle to work on the Hubble telescope, and glancing down at the swirly blue marble we Earthlings call home. My cousin wore a mock space suit he got from a local space camp, and we would munch on dehydrated astronaut food, agreeing that we could happily live on it for a few months in space. But mostly I just wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I wanted to see one of the shuttles up close—in a hangar, fine, but preferably while the shuttle stack stood waiting on Launch Pad 39A, all 184 feet and 4.5 million pounds against an ocean-blue sky. Had a star approached me then, I would’ve wished to ride the elevator 147 feet up and walk across the Orbiter Access Arm to the White Room and place my hands on the shuttle hatch. My heart trembles now just thinking about it.
But, for a galaxy of reasons, I gave up my dream of working for NASA. Not that I wasn’t smart enough (I was) or that I was a brown kid, though it may have been a bit of that—then, as now, NASA was overwhelmingly a white-people thing, and whether true or not, I got the impression that any black or brown person who worked for NASA either grew up within the white world or whitewashed themselves somewhere along the line. But more than color, the places that raised me seemed light-years from a multibillion-dollar space program. I felt I would’ve been lucky to merely get into an actual university and not just one of the local community colleges (I did both). To this day I’ve yet to visit the Kennedy Space Center, or even see one of the shuttles up close—my 11-year-old self would be shocked and appalled—but as soon as this pandemic gets lost, I’m launching to the nearest one, Endeavour, built to replace Challenger, and now sitting in all its glory at the California Science Center near downtown Los Angeles.
It was that 11-year-old space geek, still buried inside me, who sat on the edge of his seat, gripping the sofa, while I watched Netflix’s Challenger: The Final Flight, a four-part dive into the 1986 disaster that cost the lives of all seven crew members. I was only 14 months old when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, but I remember the excitement around the Space Shuttle program during the nineties—the excitement around everything, generally, during the nineties.
America was a different place then; you could feel it. Anyone born in the nineties or later has no idea the party they missed. Everything was better—the music, the books, the movies, the TV, the hope, the daring—not just subjectively, but for real. The nineties were the closing decade of America’s classical era, which ended with the Age of NASA.
We’re still going into space, but it’s different now. These days our astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians, and our glorious space program has been left in the hands of Big Business. I’m a fan of Elon Musk, SpaceX, Tesla, the Boring Company, all of it; but the Falcon rockets aren’t ours, if you catch my drift.
But, as it turns out, the space program was never really ours to begin with. As a kid, I believed that NASA built all the equipment and vehicles from scratch; that our space program was a civic undertaking, like the Lewis and Clark Expedition or the interstate system, and not another commercial one. Yet, in the Netflix series, I learned that the Solid Rocket Boosters were engineered and built by a chemical company in Utah called Thiokol, and that it was a drive for profits, and not performance, that caused the boosters to blow up—something the suits at Thiokol were warned not only could but would happen, soon enough. But since fixing the O-ring problem would cost two years, and the Cold Warriors in D.C. were pressuring NASA to launch Space Shuttle missions as quickly as possible, the suits at Thiokol overruled the scientists.
It’s often said by liars and people who don’t know much that the best results come from the private sector. Producing a quality product is paramount for any company, they tell us, because poor-quality products mean less business. I wonder if these people ever heard of McDonald’s, which isn’t in the business of making quality hamburgers, but is still the largest, best-selling hamburger chain in the universe; same goes for Pizza Hut and pizzas, Taco Bell and tacos. Businessmen aren’t interested in producing the best products, only the best-cheapest products, which is generally an oxymoron.
I’m not saying we should give NASA a blank check, but our astronauts shouldn’t be blasting off on a budget less than what we give Border Patrol and ICE, and way less than the trillion dollars or so dedicated to our nation’s defense. You would think an advanced civilization as rich and powerful as ours would pay top dollar to explore the frontiers of space and human knowledge, instead of shelling out for tanks, helicopters and planes to control a few measly lines in the sand. But such are America’s priorities in the 21st century.
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Matthew McConaughey’s character says in Interstellar. “Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.” And it is the very same people worrying about our place in the dirt who are behind the program meant to discover our place in the stars. Thiokol is now owned by Northrop Grumman, one of the pillars of our all-powerful military-industrial complex. Another pillar, Lockheed Martin, built the giant external tanks. Rockwell International built the shuttles themselves, and the Apollo command and service modules before that, till the company sold its space business to Boeing—which recently grounded its entire global fleet of 737 MAXs due to a flaw in the automatic flight control system that caused the 100-million-dollar plane to randomly go into a nosedive. The suits at Boeing knew about the issue but never spoke a word of it, while two 737 MAXs crashed—one in October 2018, the other in March 2019—killing 346 people.
So much for “the right stuff.”
Featured image: Shutterstock