Courtesy of NASA
The sky was clear. The weather was perfect. A few stars twinkled through the glow. Three miles away, over the Florida creeks and swamps, Endeavour was bathed in white light from all angles, and with a spray of beams pointed nearly vertical, like paths for it to follow. Then the moon came over the horizon to the left of the shuttle, low and yellow at first, rising slowly and fully until it acted as a spotlight and as a dream, seen the way sailors in storms see the lighthouse. Nobody in the bleachers talked about the price of gas, or the crisis on Wall Street, or war, or politics, or race, or impossibility. Everybody talked about how far we might go. Everybody watched the giant countdown clock and the little TVs that had been set up on tables. Everybody watched Don Pettit being strapped into his seat, and they talked about his magic powers and his six-year-old’s heart, about how he had never stopped believing in the things we used to believe in.
The nerves had begun setting in on Don’s family and friends the night before, when there was a spread served on Cocoa Beach. It was mostly dark; the lights were kept out to protect the spawning sea turtles. But then up came the moon. Maybe a hundred people gathered there in the silver light, eating pulled pork, talking over the sound of the wind and waves about Don, who was watching the same moon through his window in quarantine. He had been in space once before, for six months in 2002 and 2003, bedded down on the International Space Station when Columbia blew up. He had seen his tears float in front of his face. Now he’d been picked to go back into space, back to the station, and the trembles began rising like the moon in the guts of the people who loved him.
His wife, Micki, was there, smiling and happy, her nerves surfacing in a frantic kind of energy, like a mother at her daughter’s wedding. Don’s eight-year-old twin boys, Evan and Garrett, were there, too, bored and distracted. They wanted to fast-forward to the next night, when the big clock would count down their last minutes and seconds of waiting, and they would watch their dad ride the rocket into the night. They wanted to see the fire they believed would one day take their dad to the moon.
After dinner, a bus collected Don’s audience for a sneak preview. It carried people within gasping distance of the shuttle on the pad, assembled and strapped to the still-empty tank. They climbed off the bus and stood in the long grass, the ants biting their feet, behind a single strand of yellow rope and a chain-link fence, these ordinary human constructions surrounding what seemed an impossible cathedral. The shuttle was radiant in the moonlight, backdropped by an elaborate scaffold, an architecture so intricate and vast that it made people wonder out loud where you would begin if you had to do it all over again.
Which, of course, we do. The shuttle’s last flight is scheduled for 2010. (This flight could be the last night launch in the program’s history.) Two new rockets, the Ares I and the Ares V, are in development, set to fly to the station in 2015, and later to the moon, and finally to Mars. But those plans were made by a different administration in a different time. Now the scope and scale of life felt more limited. Back on the bus, there were fears expressed that Americans risked becoming strangers to weightlessness — that for the first time in our nation’s history, we might be so overwhelmed by our earthbound concerns that we’d forget to fight gravity. Space demands sack. In a country that couldn’t figure out how to mortgage a suburban family home, Mars suddenly seemed a long way off.
A sleepless night was spent listening to the air-conditioning. In the morning, the shuttle’s tank was filled with gas and it groaned under the pressure, singing like a whale. People followed the sound back to the Kennedy Space Center, back on the bus. The bleachers filled, alive and buzzing, hours before launch. From the top row, the viewfinders of digital cameras and cell phones formed constellations. The chatter between the cockpit and the launch technicians was broadcast on loudspeakers. There were anxious hugs and kisses of comfort exchanged when the sound of a familiar voice crackled through the static. There was nothing to worry about, except for everything.
And then there was a problem. Twenty-four minutes before the precisely scheduled launch — Friday, November 14, at 7:55:39 p.m. — the routine lurched to a halt. From inside their cockpit, the astronauts had noticed that the door to the White Room — at the end of the bridge they walked across to reach their hatch — was loose. The door should have been secured by technicians to keep it from swinging in Endeavour’s wake. But in their retreat, the technicians had forgotten, and there was the door, on the little TVs, swinging back and forth in the wind. It was such a simple thing; it would have taken two seconds to run up to the door and slide the pins into place. But that close to liftoff, only the astronauts were within striking distance, and they were strapped in their seats.
The cockpit communications were switched to a private channel, and the loudspeakers went silent. The bleachers were quiet then, too. So much planning, so much money and nerve, and it all might be scrubbed because of two pins in a door. That’s just the way things had been going.
But with only a few minutes to spare, the loudspeakers fired back up, and the crowd heard that the engineers had looked at the door through their cameras, and they had decided it wasn’t a danger to the seven men and women in the shuttle or to their families waiting and watching from the swamps. They heard technicians say, “Go for launch in this configuration.” They heard those same words a few times in rapid succession, until the only word that mattered anymore was Go. It gained momentum like a chant. Go for launch, go for launch, go for launch.
Everybody stood then, as though a conductor had waved his baton, and they sang the national anthem, the words “rockets’ red glare” catching in their throats.
Two minutes and twenty-four seconds before launch, the lights at the bleachers were put out. Everybody stood together in the dark, arm in arm, holding hands, watching the twin white lights in the distance, the moon and the shuttle, side by side.
The countdown continued, minutes to seconds to half breaths.
The clock was all zeros. The light that was the shuttle expanded and grew incredibly bright, this great blinding flare, white as tracer beams. The ground shock arrived, carried across the miles and up through our feet and legs and into our balls. And then came that sound, a low, loud, guttural rumble punctuated by claps and crackles, and up lifted the shuttle, first clear of the tower, and then twisting and turning out into the black space over the ocean.
It was golden and there was an exhaust trail, curling down into the clouds of mist that billowed out from the pad, the torrents of water that had been dumped to lessen the fire and shock having turned instantly into steam. The shuttle kept climbing, so fast, faster than the ordinary mind could imagine, and the fire kept burning. Endeavour climbed higher and higher, until it broke the sound barrier, and these enormous concentric circles crossed the orange sky, like the ripples when a rock hits the water, only these bounced off the clouds and the people in the bleachers made noises when they saw them, not words, just sounds. Don was somewhere in the middle of all that light. The solid rocket boosters came off, and three minutes after launch the shuttle was seventy-three miles away. Not long after, someone at mission control said, “Endeavour, negative return,” and the sound of applause rose up from the bleachers like rain. That meant that no matter what, Don was going into space. There were still points beyond which there was no turning back.
For more than six minutes the light could be followed, the sound giving way to the wind, our balls no longer jangling, but always the light, growing smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared behind the settling vapor. The shuttle was gone, and Don was gone with it.
Back on the bus, everything else was gone, too, and it stayed gone. People settled into their seats, and they wiped away their tears, and they felt their hearts slip back into their customary positions on the left side of their chests. They were quiet for a time, but when the bus began rocking down the road in the dark, they began talking, in whispers at first, and then louder, when they knew everybody felt the same way and there was no need to feel embarrassed: Everything was possible again. That night had made the best case yet for hope, for dreams, for belief, for defiance. It demonstrated the power of the irrational. There would always be explosions in the sky, and there would always be doors left unsecured, miscalculations and heartbreak. There would always be foreclosures. But all this time there had been miracles, too. There had been these beautiful and glorious moments, however brief, when everything had worked, when the gas had been sparked and the engines had roared to life and there was so much light beating back the darkness.
The bus was really thrumming now, on through the electric night, and somewhere up there, Don was unstrapping himself from his seat while he rocketed through space. He floated up to the windows, and he looked down on all of us at once, thinking what we were thinking, thinking about everything we had done and everything we had left to do, and how we would cross every wish off our list, so long as there were pockets where we kept the fire lit.
Go, you fucker. Go.