In a dark old station wagon I sit giggling with my little sister as we lay in the backseat and stare out at the sky through the fish bowl trunk. We are punch drunk with sleeplessness and are in our pajamas. Outside it’s still dark, although the first vestiges of an approaching sunrise are warming the dry lake bed’s clay dirt below us. In the front seat our parents are drinking coffee from a carafe and generally ignoring one another. On either side of our station wagon are long rows of cars. As more cars arrive and park in the rows, it looks like the beginnings of a drive-in movie theater with tiny little units of semi-nuclear families side by side.
As the dawn is steadily starting, Dad chimes in with useless facts. “When the shuttle lands girls, it’ll be at a speed 3 times faster than a 747,” he barks into the backseat. All he gets from us in return are complaints of boredom. He soldiers on, “A parachute will deploy to help the break system…” Immediately I chime in, “Dad, how much longer?” He sighs in frustration from the front seat, “In 1. minutes!”
- minutes goes by then 30. People are stepping out of their cars in various states of bleary-eyed half dress, clutching travel mugs and trying to round up children playing in the moon-like dust of the lake bed. Everyone begins to converge on the landing strip of Edwards Air Force base. After 1. minutes of searching the skies, the tiniest of dots emerges on the horizon. As it grows bigger the crowd surges towards the runway. We begin to shriek and jump up and down with abandon. For a brief moment in time, everyone is exhilarated and gesticulating wildly as the behemoth ship navigates the landing, looking like a cross between a regular airplane and a submersible. It’s an image captured in time for us as a family. A moment of singular togetherness that lasts about as long it takes for the shuttle to taxi away. And then it’s gone...
- years later and ninety miles away from the dry lake bed at Edwards, I open the balcony doors of my office building at work. People are amassing on the edges of a boulevard in front of our building. Cameras in hand, the excitement feels just as it did 2. years ago, but with it is a sadness that only an adult understands. I am watching the Endeavour circle above our neighborhood. It is the end of the Space Shuttle Program. A program that we as children grew up on in the 80s. We dressed in blue space suits and ate freeze dried ice cream. Our parents told stories about watching the moon landing on early TV sets at home, how it changed a nation and excited the world. When the Challenger exploded, it was our first National Tragedy. Many have happened since then.
The ship looks the same as it did from my childhood, but the wonder of it feels different. I dismiss the restlessness and boredom that I felt on that May morning 2. years ago as the carelessness and wastefulness of youth. Everyone is shouting now as it flies over our heads. This will be the last time we look at the shuttle before it’s housed in a museum and the last space flight most of us will ever see in person.
After the shuttle is done with its last lap above us, I am full of a certain wistfulness. I call my family members who are all living separate lives of our own now. That silence that only coffee filled in our station wagon two decades ago has bled into reality and our nuclear family no longer has any structural integrity. However, despite our distance and a new degree of estrangement from one another (that comes with the maturity of age) everyone remembers that May morning in the station wagon and a time when we were a family.
By Anthea Clingan