By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
I have, in fact, grown old. This is how I know.
When I was a kid (you know you are old when you start stories like that) we would watch space missions on television in school. It was difficult. We had to check a television out of the library, the school only had one. The class leader helped the teacher wheel it to our room on a special cart. It took a while to get a picture.
Walter Cronkite talked about the space mission. There was a high pitched “beep” when the astronauts spoke and a long delay. The pictures were grainy if they were in space. If it was a launch the reporters set up a desk at Cape Canaveral.
These times were grand and dangerous and bold. We were shown this, the space program, in school. It was the height of aspiration. The grandest endeavor. Science. Daring. Space. Knowledge. We would cure diseases, end the energy crisis, find universal peace in space exploration and one day… find new life. This we were promised. This we would go to college for, study math for, join the military for, eat Pillsbury Space Food sticks and drink Tang for. We cut our hair short and dressed like astronauts on Halloween.
While all else on earth was mundane and tarnished and dull, space was unimpeachably hopeful. Every science fiction author from Roddenberry to Clarke promised salvation in space, as long as mankind could own its many foibles.
Space… the final frontier.
But today a businessman hurled a sports car into orbit and streamed it live on social media.
I watched the launch today. My heart went tearing back to a place I had not been since July 1969. It was summer, school was out. But there was no one on the streets on July 16. That day we began to make, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The sound of today’s Falcon Heavy entered my ears and grabbed the base of my spine. I hurtled back. I was eight years old again.
Eight years old was a magical age for a boy in 1969. I did not understand the politics of war, the scandal of Vietnam, Nixon had not yet been elected President. We watched films of President John F. Kennedy. He told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” We reviewed the speech from six years earlier when Martin Luther King told the country he had a dream, “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream- one day this nation will rise up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal!”
At eight years old the needle on my moral compass had not yet begun to quiver from true north. Good was good, bad was bad. It was quite simple.
The astronauts landed on the moon. These men were heroes. This is the height of human achievement. This is the high bar. Everyone in class at Haigh Elementary School in Dearborn agreed, this was the biggest thing ever. Ever.
I never aspired to be an astronaut, although I idolized them. I had seen the missions on television. My aspirations lie elsewhere in the space program. When the astronauts re-entered the atmosphere, their capsule charred and weathered, the three bright red and white parachutes would open. They would fall, and fall, and fall into the ocean. Splashdown! And then my heroes, my men, the men I aspired to be, the frogmen, flew out in a Sea King helicopter and leapt into the deep, wild ocean to rescue the astronauts.
The astronauts may have been cool, but the frogmen who saved them were cooler.
Fast forward about twenty years and I am sitting in the door of a helicopter wearing too much equipment getting ready to jump into deep water. I’m grown up now, and I am in a U.S. Army long range surveillance unit. It is different than television, and I am scared. The engine is screaming, the rotors kick up heavy, opaque mist and I cannot see how far off the water we are. Will I float? Can I swim with all this crap on? Where is our rescue boat?
It was different than television. Walter Cronkite did not announce our arrival.
But I did manage to largely avoid adulthood as I flitted around the world trying to conjure my diluted version of the things I had read about from Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Reinhold Messner, Admiral Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau and later Tom Clancy.
It was never as grand and sparkling and true and… “right” as the astronauts though.
It was never that good, even though it was pretty darn good at times.
But today, for just a moment, that deep, structural, tearing sound of the air igniting returned for just an instant. The trail of flame was as long as the rocket itself. Did you see that? It thundered and crackled and growled in force so massive that only physics itself presided over it. All else were either spectator or passenger. And it arched up, up, into the long delirious burning blue…
But, in the end, it was a sports car with a dummy in it while a song from a cross-dressing gender-bender played in the background instead of hearing Walter Cronkite. And those things are new to me.
I guess times have changed. And I realized I had not.
Tom Demerly remembers old things about aviation and reports on new things about aviation for TheAviationist.com, the foremost defense and aerospace blog published by David Cenciotti in Rome, Italy. www.theaviationist.com