A Traveler in Space

As my trip to Houston grew closer, I kept telling people about how excited I was to see the Space Center — the visitor’s center that’s a part of the Johnson Space Center, the place where astronauts are trained, the place where space missions are controlled.

The only thing was, I kept calling it “The Space Station”.

It was no mere slip of the tongue,  I’m afraid. The Space Station, after all, is shorthand for the International Space Station, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary in orbit — and you don’t have to search very far into my psyche to reveal my desire to go into space.  Astronaut material I am not, nor have ever been, however — and so while I wait for space tourism to become a reality, I satisfy myself in two ways: by visiting terrestrial attractions that are space related, and with space-related science fiction.

I’ll have more to say about both of these over the next few weeks — the places I’ve visited, how fiction has influenced those choices, and more about what happened at the Space Center that day,  and experience which, I’ll say right now, was everything I could have hoped for, I even got a little weepy.

Astronaut Training at Johnson Space Center, Houston

But for now, I’d like to fast forward to my return back to New York, when an announcement on the cab’s television startled me: it was the 25th anniversary of the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

I’d been pondering the disaster for the days after my visit to The Space Center, because that incident had really been my introduction to the United States space program. I was 12 when it happened, and I was watching the launch in school, because teacher Christa McAuliffe was on that mission. My visual memory of the explosion is vivid — it was the first piece of human history I’d ever watched unfold before my very eyes. (And I was startled in the cab because in my memory, it was warm outside when it happened, I’m likely conflating it with my memories of 9/11  — which shows, once again, how little you can trust your memory.)

When I confessed my space geek status to Roger Bornstein, the Space Center’s director of marketing,  he said that that was unusual for someone of my age. The glory days of human space travel were over by the time I was able to pay attention. So why do I like space so much? Why am I so drawn to it? Why, when my flight into Houston was delayed, did I decide to skip lunch and race to the Space Center because I felt like I couldn’t stand the disappointment if I missed it?

Saturn V Rocket at Houston Space Center

I’ve got two theories I’m working on, which may be entirely compatible or in total contradiction to one another, I’m not sure yet.  I found them both in a book called Beyond Earth: The Future of Humans in Space, a collection of papers that look at everything from the practicalities of building a city on the moon to matters philosophical.

The first: “Our idea of space is largely a reflection of what’s inside ourselves,”  a mirror of our hopes, fears, desires, imaginations, writes Langdon Morris, one of the book’s editors.

The second:”The Overview Effect”, which is the experience that humans have when they are in orbit or on the moon, and are looking back at Earth. It’s a realignment of their entire way of thinking, writes Frank White, who starts his paper with this rather awkward quote from Apollo 9 astronaut Russell L. Schweickart: “…that whole process of what you identify with begins to shift. When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing.”

I get what he’s saying: suddenly, that “thing” you’re identifying with, where your whole life and its dramas have unfolded, the place where everything you’ve ever known and everyone you’ve ever loved is — it all just looks pretty small.

That’s just not an experience that I’d like to have — it’s a broader perspective that I think I crave.

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All photos by Alison Stein Wellner.

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