I Went To Space Yesterday

Well, I didn’t actually go out into space, because I’m not a multi-billionaire. I did, however, go see Endeavour.

Are you familiar with Endeavour? It’s a spaceship. It has gone into outer space and come back twenty-five times, which is twenty-five more times than I’ve ever gone into space.

In school, around the first or second grade, they ask you what you want to be when you grow up. Not too long ago, I found a piece of rule lined paper, and in my terrible chicken-scratch scrawl, was written the word “ASTRONAUT.” I spelled it correctly, though I did write the S backwards. Most kids want to be astronauts, but I really wanted to be an astronaut. I was going into space. I even researched what I needed to do to get there. I was going to join the Air Force and become an astronaut.

When I had to get glasses around the fifth grade, I was crushed, because it meant I couldn’t be an astronaut; astronauts have to have perfect vision. My dream died there, but I didn’t bury it. It’s still there, poking out from the dirt with other fallen dreams.

I still want to be an astronaut. I still want to go into space. Before I die, I want to see the earth from a distance. Even if I just go up, make one orbit, take some selfies with earth in the background, and come back down, that would be enough. Five minutes in space is all I ask.

When the United States ended the manned space program altogether, it hurt my heart. I wrote about the death of my dream. It chaps my hide that we live in an era where space travel is completely possible, yet we don’t do it anymore. The only way you can go into space now is to be a multi-billionaire. I’m not a multi-billionaire. I’m not even a multi-hundredaire at the moment. I can’t buy my way into space. Space travel is now yet another privilege reserved solely for the extremely wealthy and that pisses me off.

When I was growing up, I was led to believe that, if you worked hard enough, anyone could be President and anyone could go into space. While the concept that anyone can be President has actually opened up a bit since I was a kid (we now have one President who isn’t a rich, old, white dude), nowadays, not everyone can go into space. No matter how hard you work or how much you hope to get there, kids these days will never be astronauts. Astronaut isn’t even a profession in the United States anymore and that just fucking sucks.

When I heard the news that Los Angeles was getting one of four retired space shuttles, my heart sang with bitter happiness. I’m not sure that bitter happiness is even a thing, but that’s how I felt. I was happy because it meant that I would get to see a spaceship up close and personal. I was bitter because Endeavour, or a space shuttle like it, should still be making trips into space, dammit, but United States manned space missions are history. Instead of exploring space, spaceships are now relegated to museums. They are placed behind plexiglass with little plaques of text explaining what this thing is and that thing, and souvenirs.

I went to space yesterday. I went to the California Science Center. I love science. Science is the coolest thing going. Amid all the science, there was space. The build up was terrible.

We got tickets online in advance for a specific time. We stood in line with our tickets and they led us through some penguins, not real penguins, but giant video penguins that were part of the ecosystems exhibit. I was glad they weren’t real penguins; I would have felt badly since we were all more excited to see space than penguins. They led us through another room and made us stand in another line.

They removed the velvet rope and allowed us into a large room with all sorts of space displays related to Endeavour including a space toilet. Have you ever wondered about bodily functions in space? Well, you can see for yourself. For five dollars, you could ride on a simulator. I was really tempted, but the line was too long and I wanted to see the real thing. I would have paid five dollars to use the space toilet, but it wasn’t an option.

In the large room that was so crowded you couldn’t move, there were some used tires. I’m not sure what the tires were, because I couldn’t get near enough to read the plaque. I think they were Endeavour’s tires. I thought about it and I wasn’t sure if Endeavour has tires since it doesn’t take off on a runway like a plane, but it does have to land somehow, so it probably has tires. However, these and other questions would go unanswered because there were too many people in the large room to get near enough to the text plaque. In any event, there were some tires, they were used and I touched one of them. Cool! Space tires! Or not!

I don't see any tires. Space Shuttle Endeavour on launch pad 39A prior to mission STS-127, May 31, 2009. Image from wiki.
I don’t see any tires.
Space Shuttle Endeavour on launch pad 39A prior to mission STS-127, May 31, 2009.
Image from wiki.

At the end of the room with the space tires, was a replica of mission control. It looked more like something from a movie set than a usable workspace. There were all sorts of readouts and blinking lights and visuals and I didn’t know what any of it meant. All I knew was that this War Games looking console was meant to replicate the place where the people worked to send spaceships into space and bring them home. Neat!

NORAD control room from the movie War Games. Image from appliedcynicism.com
NORAD control room from the movie War Games.
Image from appliedcynicism.com

We stood in another line and were ushered into a small theater with not nearly enough chairs where they showed us a video of how Endeavour came to us. It was actually a pretty touching video. I wasn’t able to make it down when Endeavour was flying through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to its final destination, but I watched all the videos and news coverage with rapt attention. The video showed the massive spaceship wending its way through Los Angeles streets with thousands of people standing by, waving flags and generally looking proud of what our country accomplished. It was a big deal.

From there, we were led out of the large room, told to take a left, go down the stairs and to another booth where they would take our tickets. We walked through a small courtyard and through the door where I was expecting another display of tires or the like, but there she was.

Like about half of the people who walked through that door, I stopped dead in my tracks. Gravity took my lower jaw from where it was nestled against the upper and threw it towards the floor. I stood there, mouth agape, like the damn moron monkey with thumbs that I am and I nearly cried. There she was.

I hadn’t expected the magnitude of the situation I found myself in to move me quite as much as it did. All of my childhood dreams culminated in that moment. I was the small girl writing ASTRONAUT on a sheet of lined school paper. I was the girl who researched what it took to stand as close as I was standing to a spacecraft. I never expected that it would be as easy as paying $2 and standing in line, but there she was. And she was huge, bigger than you’d expect. She was battered. You could tell that she was a working vehicle; she was built with a purpose. She served that purpose twenty-five times and the strain on her showed. Yet, she was still so very majestic.

She was huge! I couldn’t get over how big she was, but then I thought about the vastness of space and how Endeavour went up there all alone. She was out there twenty-five times in a space so big we can’t even see the whole of it. I thought about how absolutely thrilling and pants-shittingly terrifying it would be to have her as your only home in all that vastness. I wanted to be an astronaut and there she was, a vehicle that made it happen for the lucky few.

Eventually, I corralled my lower jaw and set to taking pictures. I took lots of pictures. I share some of them with you now, even though they do not even remotely do her justice. Pictures can’t capture humanity’s unquenchable search for knowledge, understanding and know-how; the childlike curiosity and sense of wonder; and the balls-out courage that she represents.

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As an American, our space exploration is the accomplishment of which I am most proud. It is the one thing that I can point to that we did selflessly, to benefit all mankind. It is the very best of us. Inherent in our space exploration are humanity’s finest qualities, including working together as a unified species to build an International Space Station, which Endeavour helped make possible.

If you get the chance to visit Endeavour or any of the other space shuttles around the United States, even if you didn’t want to be an astronaut as a child, I highly recommend it. It’s not every day that you get to see the best of mankind.

The dream is not entirely dead.