October 11, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Reflections On [not] Becoming An Astronaut

Picture in your mind the movie, INDEPENDENCE DAY.

Picture the scene where Will Smith, in the character of Captain Steven Hiller and his buddy, Captain Jimmy Wilder are kidding and goofing around and walk into the locker room area in front of the lockers just before the grand assault on the Aliens. Stuck in the gap between his locker door and the locker bank is a letter clearly addressed to him with the huge NASA logo on it.

Of course, we all remember what it read. “Dear Captain Hiller, Loser:...blah, blah, blah, blah…that despite your excellent qualifications we regret to inform you…” The disappointment on Captain Hiller’s face is deep. Heartfelt. You almost feel like he might have once actually wished he was an astronaut. Seems like EVERYONE has “wanted to be an astronaut when I grow up.”

Skip backward from 1996 ten years. It’s 1986 and we’re all watching the space shuttle CHALLENGER launch into the clear, blue Florida sky on January 28. The image is either etched in our mind’s eye or we’ve seen it enough times to remember it well: the single column of rocket exhaust suddenly twisting crazily into a pair of columns ending nowhere…

I’d been a teacher for five years, hadn’t yet met the woman of my dreams and had talked to my high school astronomy class often about the Teacher In Space program. I have in my Life Box in the basement, a 23-year-old, yellowing copy of the lesson plan book every teacher in the country got just before Christa McAuliffe went up in CHALLENGER to be the first teacher and one of the first civilians ever to go into space. After the disaster, my students asked me if they ever started the program again, would I go?

I responded every time, “Without pausing for a breath, ‘yes’.”

Even so, I never really pursued the dream; certainly not when I was young enough and healthy enough for it to be a “real” possibility. Certainly not through a military career – because after CHALLENGER exploded, no one BUT soldiers were going to be going into space for a long, long time. (Ever wonder if the military did that on purpose – just to keep civvies out of space? Hmmm. Nah.)

Skip ten years ahead of time to 1996 then skip twelve years to 2008. Spring. I was surfing the Net and came across the advertisement for NASA on USAJOBS.com – NASA wanted to put teachers into space again! My heart skipped a beat. Maybe I could be an astronaut!

Then I came back to reality. What would NASA want with a big, old, fat, white guy like me – ballast for an underwater astronaut training facility? Hmph. No way. Not a chance. Why even bother?

Except, if I didn’t actually try, I would never know for CERTAIN that I couldn’t be an astronaut. If I didn’t apply, I would never be able to say, unequivocally that “I can’t be an astronaut.”

So I applied. Really. All out. The whole kit and caboodle. Forms, references, questionnaires and letters. All of it. Online and in paper. It took me about a month to get everything together and send it, but when I was done, I confess I was suddenly on pins and needles. What if NASA actually said, “Yes!”? What would I do? Would I go to Houston and start training? What about my family? (The pay was good – a third again as much as I’m making now.) So we might actually be able to do it! The kids aren’t little any more. My wife and I had talked about traveling. Why not to Houston to get training for an astronaut?

I waited tensely. And waited, and waited and waited. I emailed NASA to find out when they planned to announce the new astronaut candidates. They emailed back that it would be “soon”.

Then, on the day after INDEPENDENCE DAY 2009, I got the letter I was both hoping for and dreading:“Dear Mr. Stewart: Thank you for applying for the Astronaut Candidate Program. Blah, blah, blah…Regrettably, we were only able to select a small number of those with potential to make a contribution to the nation’s space program…We appreciate the opportunity to consider you…and wish you success in your future endeavors.”

Now I knew for sure that I could never be an astronaut. *sigh*

I suppose though that I am in good company. They said that there were 3500 applicants for 9 positions. The fact that 3491 others had been turned down just like I had been sort of made me feel better. But my biggest comfort is that I knew that Will Smith wasn’t going into space any time soon, either.

image from: http://l.yimg.com/eb/ymv/us/img/hv/photo/movie_pix/twentieth_century_fox/independence_day/_group_photos/harry_connick_jr_1.jpg

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's pretty neat that you applied for the position anyway, Guy, despite that nagging voice of doubt that taunts us all. Good for you!