My son wants to go into space. He’s only 7, but he’s known two things seemingly since birth – he wants to build robots, and he wants to go into space.
So, this is not a huge surprise to me. I wanted to go into space when I was a kid. I’m an ardent sci-fi lover, technology early adopter, and all around geek. It made sense that my son would have these interests.
As a parent, you love it when you can share things with your kids without too much effort. Getting them to like things you like is not always natural or easy and so I encourage my son in these tendencies whenever I can. But something happens as your kids get older that’s sort of hard to describe. You want your kids to succeed and follow their dreams, but you also want to temper that with a sense of realism and generally look out for their well being. Sometimes that brings a parent in conflict with the process of encouraging kids to chase their dreams.
Thirty years ago, my dream was also to go into space. I missed out on the Apollo program. I was born too late to have been caught up directly in that excitement. At seven years old, though, I was just old enough to be captured by the marvel of the space shuttle program and the promise it might bring. It seemed we had come so far since the days of Apollo. Suddenly, even teachers could go into space. I remember with clarity the excitement that this feeling caused, and reeled in horror with the nation as we watched the Columbia explode in a heartbeat on national television. Suddenly it was clear how far we had yet to go.
Today, my son is seven years old and watches the launch of the last in the shuttles to blast out of Earth’s atmosphere. As he does so, I marvel at how different things are, yet how similar.
I didn’t actually get to watch the launch with my son. I got up early and put my macbook pro next to the TV and connected them, launching the NASA uStream HD broadcast from the Cape without really thinking much about it.
I headed to work and suddenly was overcome with an immense need to watch the launch I knew he was watching with my wife and daughter.
I did-while on a train moving 55 MPH toward a tunnel and the city. On a mobile phone using the NASA iphone app.
The moments just before it launched, that’s when it hit me – I was 7 when the first shuttle launched and my son is 7 today. When I was a kid, you could only watch the parts of the launch broadcast on the news. Today, my son was watching via the Internet, live in HD and I was watching with him on my phone via a moving train. How far our technology – some directly related to the advances made by the space program, had seem to have come! Suddenly my son’s desires to go into space became far too real as I empathized with the families of the crew about to be rocketed into space and flashed back to the horrible images and feelings of the explosion of the Columbia.
I was tense for this launch and misty eyed because of the significance of it – but I was also suddenly overcome with a fear for my son – anxiety about one day watching him sit atop a lethal candle such as this made me want to not encourage my son so much about space and space travel. But that wasn’t right, was it?
The shuttle lifts effortlessly from the ground without the slightest indication of danger or effort on this, the last launch for Atlantis. As many as are watching, I know that eyes are now on the future. What will this mean for my son and others like him? What will their Columbia be? Can I really encourage my son to set his sights on being an astronaut, even though the chances of making it are so slim? Even though the danger that awaits him if he actually makes it could be lethal?
As I watch mission control in Houston take over for the Cape and the shuttle become a blip on a map, I send a text message to my wife. She too has “something in her eyes” at that moment as we feel the scope of how far we have come, and how far yet we have to go.