Wednesday, July 27, 2005

She's up

By the time I knew, it was already over; the breakup in the atmosphere, the falling debris, the President’s statement. My parents called my Cape Canaveral apartment a few hours after Columbia never reported home that day, rousing me from a deep sleep that began on the assumption that it would end with twin sonic booms that always accompany an orbiter home to Florida. They never came.

Earlier in the week, I had taken to my work as an educator at the Kennedy Space Center with the hyperkinetic sense of closure that always accompanied a pending landing. “Look how amazing this is!” I’d said, there in my sneakers and security clearance badge, waving my hands at a DVD presentation depicting an orbiter meeting the runway with barely a bounce.

I did not go to work the next day. Or the day after that. “Get back on the horse,” my parents said, but the horse lay shattered over a massive debris field somewhere between Texas, Louisiana, and why.

I could not bear the stark and silent launch pads, and left for a technical writing job with steady pay and a nice office and no mission risks. There followed a great deal of staring into the middle distance. When I could no longer bear that, I returned to teaching at an aeronautical university in Daytona Beach. I’m a writing instructor; difficult under any circumstances, harder still when faced with students who communicate better with decimal points than words.

My students are intelligent, brash, and left-brained. They will take us to Mars. They will complete the under-construction International Space Station that Discovery is greeting this week. It is my job to ensure that they do so with proper subject-verb agreement.

“Who cares?” one asked me when I handed back a paper covered in red ink. “Who cares if I have an adjective in the wrong place?”

“The astronaut,” I said, “who puts the wrong wingnut in the wrong place during a spacewalk because you used the wrong adjective in the assembly directions.” I went back to my office and tacked up the patches of Challenger and Columbia’s final crews. Such questions stopped.

The day before the launch of Discovery, I looked out at my class, my elbows bent against me. They had been wrangling commas for the past hour and a half. It showed.

I spread my arms. "Okay. Who wants to go flying tomorrow?"

Class began late the next day. The campus stopped. The last time it stopped was the first Saturday in February, when the dorms remained chilly and solemn on the best party night of the week; the time before that, a bright Tuesday morning in September when the air traffic control students had a horrifying object lesson in directing a mass of quick landings. We wanted to stand still again, this time to drink from the same wellspring of joy that had bubbled long below the surface. Florida had long since wearied of worried glances shared over radar screens showing a whorl of destructive winds, of metal detectors at the gates of Disney World, of yet another delay in hearing the glorious pounding of a launch roll across Cocoa Beach, Daytona, Orlando, Tampa Bay.

The entire university stood on the quad, climbed on top of cars, leaned over balconies. I swayed back and forth in high heels in the faculty parking lot, further away from a launch than I had ever been since I first moved to Florida for the sole purpose of watching them.

“Countdown’s over,” called one of the students, listening to the narration from Mission Control on my beat-up radio. Some, watching a feed from NASA TV on their laptop computers, tilted the screen away from the sun.

"She's up, she's up!" I heard nothing. I saw nothing. I cupped a hand over my sunglasses, scanning, then found an audacious fire trail arcing over the building housing my classroom.

“There she is,” I said, pointing. Whole, and healthy, and climbing—there she was. I raised my head to the thrilled and jealous yelling from the student pilots behind me.

We poured into the classroom a stream of electrons, bouncing on the carpet, whirling through the rows of desks. I stood at the door, high-fiving each of them as they entered. One of them found a television feed, and we watched the replay. And watched it. And watched it. We put it on perpetual replay--the towering steam, the blue flame of the engines. I patted the screen and talked about the spacewalks to come. Someone turned up the volume; commander Eileen Collins’ voice burst against all four walls of the room.

I waved my hands before the images. “Look how amazing this is!”

They looked. I memorized their faces, because in twenty years, I’ll be looking at them.

happy sigh, if it is possible to sigh while still holding your breath, at

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